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Md. Public Defender Firing Linked to Dispute Over Priorities

Nancy Forster said she might sue over her firing last week.
Nancy Forster said she might sue over her firing last week. "I want my job back," she said. (Craig Herndon)

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By Dan Morse and Ruben Castaneda
Thursday, August 27, 2009

The firing last week of Maryland's chief public defender stemmed in large part from philosophical differences over how to represent the state's poorest criminal suspects, according to internal letters and interviews with people on both sides.

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The head of the board that oversees the agency said that in lean times, public defenders must scale back efforts outside the courtroom, such as employing social workers or helping clients find proper housing.

"The tighter the budget, the closer you must get to your core mission: having prepared attorneys in the courtroom," said T. Wray McCurdy, who led the effort to sack Public Defender Nancy Forster. The board voted 2 to 1 last Thursday for the firing.

Forster, 51, is among those who say the efforts of social workers -- to get certain clients into drug or mental health treatment, for example -- free lawyers to do courtroom work and keep clients from committing more crimes, saving money in the long run.

"He is so shortsighted and penny-wise and pound-foolish," Forster said of McCurdy, "that he will never see the big picture." Forster said she might sue over the firing, and she has hired two well-known lawyers to represent her. "I want my job back," she said in an interview.

Before Forster was officially dismissed Friday, she telephoned two of the agency's Baltimore area lawyers, who say they are friends of McCurdy's, and summarily fired them. After Forster was removed, the two were able to keep their jobs.

Officially called the Office of the Public Defender, the agency doesn't receive much attention, in part because it represents people accused of drug dealing, homicides and other offenses that don't make them popular with the public. With 400 lawyers and 600 support employees, it spends about $90 million a year representing more than 170,000 people.

It's not clear what role, if any, personalities or politics played in Forster's dismissal. McCurdy was appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and reappointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). McCurdy, who describes himself as having a neighborhood practice in Essex, east of Baltimore, mostly handles relatively routine criminal matters such as drunken driving and assault.

The two other board members, Margaret A. Mead and Theresa L. Moore, were appointed by O'Malley. Mead voted with McCurdy to oust Forster; Moore voted to retain her. Forster, a 25-year member of the office, became its head under Ehrlich.

O'Malley has said little about the firing. The governor's office issued a statement Friday that stated in its entirety: "Over the last two years and at her request, Governor O'Malley has met with Ms. Forster on several occasions to discuss budgetary issues with regard to the Office of the Public Defender. The Governor has no comment on today's personnel action by the Office of the Public Defender Board of Trustees."

McCurdy and Mead said their problems with Forster go back at least to January. Citing budget restrictions, they pushed her to disband centralized units devoted to death penalty and juvenile cases, to justify the use of social workers and to try to move more trial lawyers into local offices.

"The movement toward providing 'in-house' [services] other than legal services has directly resulted in the basic function of the OPD to be stretched beyond the limit," McCurdy wrote to Forster on July 2, spelling out eight changes that she must make.

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