Maryland's Chief Public Defender Ousted; Hinted Racial Issues Might Be Factor

Forster was fired Friday.
Forster was fired Friday. (Craig Herndon)
By Ruben Castaneda and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 22, 2009

Maryland's chief public defender said Friday that she was fired by the board of trustees that oversees her office and she suggested that philosophical differences and racial division were factors.

In a one-page statement, Nancy S. Forster, 51, who is white, said she was ousted after she refused an order to fire "a well-respected African American District Public Defender, for absolutely no reason." Forster also wrote that the Office of Public Defender Board of Trustees voted 2 to 1 to terminate her, with the panel's lone black panel member voting to retain her.

"I have also been asked to perform other unlawful and wrongful acts. And, I have refused to do any of these," Forster wrote, without elaboration.

The three members of the board, T. Wray McCurdy, Margaret A. Mead and Theresa L. Moore, did not return phone calls.

In an e-mail to attorneys and other employees in the public defender's office, Forster wrote that the two panel members who voted to fire her had demanded she disband the capital defense and juvenile defender divisions and disperse staff members and attorneys to district public defender offices.

In the e-mail, Forster said McCurdy and Mead told her in a letter that they thought the public defender's office's "staggering growth rate" must "be curbed as overall agency growth far outstrips the rate of caseload growth." In the letter, the two also told Forster that the role of the agency was not to "rehabilitate and life-assist individuals charged and convicted with crimes." For example, Forster said in her e-mail, the two didn't think public defenders should be trying to solve housing problems. The two board members wanted Forster to "reorganize and justify which, if any, social workers are necessary," Forster told employees.

Forster did not respond to a phone message.

The members, all lawyers, are appointed by the governor. McCurdy and Mead, who voted to oust Forster, practice in the Baltimore area. Moore practices primarily in Prince George's County.

In a brief news release, McCurdy announced that Elizabeth L. Julian, who had been the chief public defender in Baltimore city, has been named the state's interim chief public defender.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) released a statement in which he declined to comment on the firing.

The job of public defender is "the most important criminal justice position in the state, from the perspective of the defense," said Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.

The public defender's office, which has an annual budget of $88 million, comprises about 400 attorneys and an additional 600 administrative and support workers. Assistant public defenders in Maryland represent more than 170,000 defendants annually. The main office is in Baltimore, and there are 12 district offices across the state.

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