Outspoken public defender faces ‘star chamber’ reappointment (updated)

Courtesy of Hennepin County Mary Moriarty

Editor’s Note: By a 5-2 vote, the Board of Public Defense voted on Wednesday to remove Mary Moriarty from her post as Hennepin County chief public defender. She had held the post since 2014.

Will challenging the system’s fairness exact a price?

Mary Moriarty, chief public defender for Hennepin County, is up for reappointment by the State Board of Public Defense on September 30. Many who are familiar with Moriarty’s work think this should be a shoo-in, a no-brainer to retain her position. But the fact that the public defender was placed on “paid leave” in December last year for reasons that have not been made clear to the public casts some doubt on the outcome.

According to Minnesota State Public Defender William Ward, Moriarty was put on paid leave in December 2019 “based on information that came to the boards’ attention.” However, it’s not clear where this information came from or if it was solicited by the board.

“The board has never ever commented in public about any personnel issue whether it be the chief or any other position,” said Ward. In reality the board did not have to comment; putting the chief public defender on paid leave is a statement in and of itself.

The head public defender has received widespread support from colleagues, politicians, and the broader community.

“We write as Hennepin County legislators to strongly support the reappointment of Mary Moriarty as Chief Public Defender,” wrote a group of state legislators representing Hennepin County, including seven senators and 17 representatives. “Ms. Moriarty has the trust of her community. We are admirers and supporters of her leadership on behalf of the most marginalized, and of her insistence that Minnesota’s institutions become better at serving the interest of justice.

“Ms. Moriarty has gone above and beyond to make her office as effective as possible on behalf of their clients. The office is nationally recognized for providing high quality representation,” wrote the legislators.

 “She is a good boss,” said Matthew Jaimet, who has served as a public defender in Hennepin County for 15 years. “She is a public defender at heart, and that’s what’s most important. She is dedicated to her work, and she is dedicated to the cause, and that is all that matters. And that is the one thing you have to have to do that job well.”

The reappointment process involves the board performing what is called a 360 evaluation, in which they talk to business partners and people who work actively in the criminal courts system including, judges, corrections, county attorneys, and county administrators about the candidate.  The personnel committee of the board reviews the recommendation and makes a determination to reappoint or not.

An ad hoc committee is formed, which usually involves a local chief judge appointing two ad hoc members to be a part of the board. They provide information to the board from people they have consulted about the candidate. However, the ad hoc members do not vote in the reappointment process.

It is not clear if community members outside of the courts system or legal profession are brought into the process. In Moriarty’s case, that would likely strengthen her cause because she has ample community support.

This year, four chief public defenders statewide are up for reappointment. If they fail to be reappointed, the job comes open and they can reapply for their job.

“Ms. Moriarty’s heart for public defense is evident in her career of service to the people of Hennepin County,” read a statement from a petition that was circulated on change.org in the wake of her being placed on paid leave last year. “In particular, her advocacy around matters of racial justice is a model for all of us, and especially for those of us in leadership positions in other jurisdictions.”

Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile who was killed by a St. Anthony policeman in 2016, has said of Moriarty, “She is an ally. She wants to make sure that everybody is treated equally in the courts, and she makes sure that you get the kind of representation that you deserve.”

Castile has become familiar with Moriarty and the public defender’s office through her own volunteer and community work. “Mary and her people do not go into court and plead you out and doesn’t just focus on what’s written in the police report,” Castile continued. “She wants the public defenders to get to know their clients so they can give them the proper representation.

“And because of this, those folks are mad at her. When you get people in position who want to help People of Color, then they want to get rid of them.”

Castile said that Moriarty has developed programs designed to help people on probation to keep them from reoffending, such as providing rides for people who are having trouble making court appointments or making it to court-appointed drug tests.

In August, Moriarty’s office conducted a study that showed Minneapolis police stop African American and African drivers at a rate disproportionate to the city’s population. Drawing from Minneapolis police data, the study was conducted between June 2019 and May 2020.

It found that African Americans and East African drivers made up 78% of police searches that began as stops for equipment problems or moving violations. During the same time period, Whites who were stopped under similar circumstances had their cars searched 12% of the time.

Many supporters believe that the Hennepin County public defender fell out of favor with the power structure when her office called out the Minneapolis police in 2018 after disclosure that nearly all of the small-scale marijuana sellers arrested downtown that year were Black. The public revelation of the apparently biased enforcement of the law forced the MPD to end the practice.

Moriarty spoke out after the killing of George Floyd, pointing out in a WCCO news interview that “The whole country is looking at George Floyd, but we see George Floyd often, unfortunately.” She revealed that what the world witnessed with Floyd is nothing new to her office.

“It’s not just Minneapolis police,” Moriarty said. “For years, we’ve seen an environment of interaction with our clients that’s disrespectful. Rough treatment, like knees in backs and necks.” Moriarty said her office has raised the red flag to officials “for years.”

Moriarty challenged others in the court system to take a more active role in calling out police violence. Now that the court system often sees video, she said she thinks it’s up to them to be part of the solution when they see bad behavior.

“We all play a role in holding each other accountable in the system,” said Moriarty in remarks that may not have endeared her to her “justice partners.” “It is usually not just one player in the criminal justice system, not just the police. It is prosecutors, it is judges.”

 Upon completing a five-year study of the Hennepin County Public Defender’s office for the National Center for State Courts, the director of the project, Brian Ostrom, wrote, “Mary Moriarty runs one of the best public defender offices in the country. Ms. Moriarty’s commitment to holistic defense has produced positive benefits in terms of client trust and satisfaction.

“She is one of only a few leaders I have encountered in my 30 years in the business who appear truly interested in learning what is working well in their organization, where are the opportunities for improvement, and how they can make best use of their scarce resources,” Ostrom continued. “The State of Minnesota, and especially Hennepin County, are very lucky to have her.”