Maryland public defenders vote to join largest state worker union

Maryland’s public defenders on Tuesday voted to join the largest union for state government employees, more than two years after launching a unionization push.

The state’s Office of the Public Defender employs some 600 lawyers, paralegals, social workers and administrative assistants, with outposts in every Maryland county and Baltimore, to represent marginalized people accused of crimes.


Tuesday’s landslide vote means the office’s attorneys and support staff will be represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and immediately reap the protections of AFSCME’s contract with the Maryland.

“Staff are leaving because there aren’t enough resources to do our jobs adequately and ethically, because of oppressive workloads and caseloads that never get more manageable and because we have been ignored when calling out for change,” said Marci Tarrant Johnson, a public defender in the Baltimore City office and president of the Maryland Defenders Union, in statement issued by the union, which is now under the umbrella of AFSCME.


In a statement, Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue, who was named state public defender in May, said the union’s priorities, including better pay, adequate staffing and enhanced working conditions, aligned with her administration’s.

“OPD’s continued success in providing excellent representation to the numerous disenfranchised and marginalized individuals we serve requires increased OPD funding and unfettered support of the dedicated attorneys, social workers and core staff,” Dartigue’s statement said. “I will work collaboratively with union leadership to further this collective mission. I look forward to exchanging ideas and engaging in meaningful dialogue that identifies solutions, enhances employee morale, and facilitates team work.”

The Maryland Defenders Union will be split into two bargaining groups within AFSCME Maryland Council 3. One includes lawyers, intake staff, social workers and investigators. The other encompasses support staff.

“For too long, we’ve been discounted, disrespected and undervalued,” Kalia Woods, an administrative aide with the Prince George’s County office, said in a statement. “Decisions have been made that draw dividing lines between us and ultimately affect the work we are able to do for our clients.”

The public defenders announced their push to unionize in August of 2020 against the backdrop of a raging coronavirus pandemic and mounting backlog of criminal cases in the courts. At the time, they said they hoped for reduced caseloads, safer working conditions and a bigger say in the criminal justice system.

Maryland’s public defender unionization followed campaigns in Philadelphia, Connecticut and Los Angeles.

Public defenders represent indigent people accused of everything from trespassing to murder in court from the state’s far western point in Garrett County to the Eastern Shore.

Assistant public defenders, the rank-and-file lawyers, typically make a starting salary of $66,000 to $71,000, said Stuart Katzenberg, an AFSCME spokesman.


In a statement, Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, touted the vote as a “win” for public defenders who are joining a union that represents more than 30,000 state government and higher education institution employees.

“Together, we will continue to organize for the pay, respect and better working conditions every state worker deserves,” Moran said.