What has happened at the Public Defender Service says volumes about power and politics in this town. It is tempting to tiptoe around the controversy because, on one level, it involves the refusal of the service's former director to implement a directive to hire three black attorneys out of four, and that sounds like a matter of race. But the racial issue is bogus. The real problem: blind exercise of power by people used to having it but who do not understand that there are institutions where professionalism is more important than politics.

For almost 20 years, this city's public defender office has defied the stereotype of a place where lawyers work as a last resort. Jobs at the D.C. office are competitive. Most successful applicants have held other jobs or judicial clerkships in which they performed with distinction. Patronage has never played a role in hiring.

If there is a single factor that accounts for the uniqueness of the service, it is its independence, from both the courts and the District Building. The statute that created it established a board of trustees, which chooses the director and deputy director. The director, not the board, hires staff, and the staff handles individual cases. The board is strictly forbidden from interfering in the conduct of individual cases.

Unfortunately, the selection of Cheryl Long as the director and the manner in which it was done suggest that a majority of the current board, including its chairman, is determined for the first time to assert political control over staff selection, and that it intends to impose a much firmer grip on conduct of individual cases. If that occurs, the character of the service and its reputation will change overnight.

In February, the board forced the resignation of Francis Carter as director. Carter had served for six years and by all accounts had done an exceptional job. It seemed, however, that Carter, who is black, had resisted a board order that three out of every four new staff attorneys hired be members of a minority. Under Carter's leadership the number of minority staff attorneys had increased dramatically, but he incurred the board's wrath by insisting that applicants, no matter what their race or sex, demonstrate ability and commitment beyond the successful completion of a bar examination. When Carter resigned, attention began to focus on Charles Ogletree, the deputy director, as the logical successor. Ogletree is an extraordinarily talented lawyer. He is recognized as one of the best trial attorneys ever to work at the service. He has the respect of the judiciary and of the U.S. Attorney's Office. He also has administrative experience. It seems, however, that Ogletree, who is also black, irritated the board when he and a contingent of minority staff attorneys sought to support Carter's recruiting record and to dissuade the board from pushing him out. That apparently was not loyal.

The board bypassed Ogletree and selected as director a prosecutor with no experience as a defense attorney or as an administrator. The selection was made in a meeting behind locked doors at which the chairman reportedly permitted no discussion of the merits of the various candidates. The vote was 6 to 4 with one abstention. On Long's first day of work, all minority staff attorneys issued a statement opposing her selection because she had no experience in criminal defense work, no supervisory experience and because Ogletree was so obviously the better qualified candidate. The National Conference of Black Lawyers also issued a long denunciation of the board.

The prerogative of the board to hire and fire the director is certainly beyond dispute. I am told that Long is a woman of good will and ability. She apparently was drafted for the job, and one can sympathize with her predicament. That is not the point. What matters is that the board appears to have lost sight of the service's primary purpose: providing quality representation to the city's poor.

Board Chairman Vincent H. Cohen, a partner at a major law firm in this city, recently told the National Law Journal that it is not necessary to apply his law firm's hiring standards to the Public Defender. I suggest he tell that to the citizens of this city who are arrested tonight and who tomorrow will look through the bars of the Superior Court cell block at their appointed lawyers.

It appears now that the board selected Long to do indirectly what the statute does not permit it to do directly: force radical change in the character of the staff and deprive it of its independence. That would be a tragedy. The staff can find other jobs. It is the people who will suffer. Why should the service's clients be entitled to anything but the best, especially when the city gets their talents for half what a large law firm pays?

It is a terrible mistake for this board, five members of which will conclude their terms this June, to conceive that their mandate is to bring the staff of the Public Defender Service to its knees and teach it a lesson in the political reality of "who's boss." The board may be the boss, but if this foolishness continues there will not be much left to fight over.