The state's chief public defender was fired Friday after she refused to overhaul her office, calling demands made by a governor-appointed oversight board "unlawful and wrongful."
Nancy S. Forster said changes ordered by the Office of the Public Defender Board of Trustees - which could be implemented within days - would "destroy all progress made by the agency over the past 10 years."
Forster also raised the issue of racial bias, saying she had been asked to fire an African-American division chief "for absolutely no reason," and pointing out that the only black trustee on the three-member board disagreed with the reorganization and with Forster's termination.
Forster had been asked for months to scale back operations amid a recession that has cut state revenue.
The agency opens about 200,000 cases a year and has an annual budget of about $90 million. It has added 212 positions over the past five fiscal years and now employs more than 400 lawyers and 600 other workers.
"It is imperative that the agency's rather staggering growth rate be curbed as overall agency growth far outstrips the rate of caseload growth," wrote board Chairman T. Wray McCurdy, a private defense attorney in Towson, in a July 2 letter to Forster.
McCurdy demanded that Forster focus the office on its legally required duty to defend people accused of crimes who cannot afford a private attorney, and said it was not the job of public defenders to "rehabilitate and life assist" clients, as some programs try to do. Neither he nor other board members would comment Friday, saying the decision to remove the chief defender was a personnel matter.
The cuts and reorganization ordered by the board - and documented by Forster in a note to her employees Friday morning - have public defenders fearful of a major shake-up. The board appointed Baltimore's chief public defender, Elizabeth L. Julian, as interim head of the state office.
Meanwhile, Forster has hired Baltimore attorney William H. Murphy Jr. and College Park-based James McCollum, an employment law expert, to represent her.
Among the eight changes the board told her to make by Sept. 1:
* Disband the capital defense and juvenile protection divisions and disperse the employees.
* Close a community defenders operation and merge those employees with "traditional" city and county offices.
* Outsource Child in Need of Assistance representation to private attorneys.
* Remove Baltimore County Public Defender Thelma Triplin. (Reached Friday, Triplin declined to comment.)
In the e-mail to employees, Forster said such cuts would "take this agency backward to mediocrity at best and incompetence at worst." She said it would cost more by requiring more law clerks and increase staff workload by eliminating social workers.
Forster's second in command, Michael Morrissette, announced Friday that he is stepping down to take a trial attorney position in the Anne Arundel County public defender's office. He said in an e-mail to employees that he had made the decision weeks ago.
"There's a lot of uneasiness and unrest and no idea what is going on," said Vanita Taylor, chief attorney of the child assistance division, which is targeted for closure. "I have no idea what the status of anything is. Everyone is a little upset because no one knows what to expect."
Forster, who was appointed by a board that served under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., had an often-combative relationship with Gov. Martin O'Malley, strained further in recent months by rounds of state budget-cutting, lawmakers and high-level public defenders said.
O'Malley's office issued a terse statement on Forster's firing, saying only that he had met with her "on several occasions to discuss budgetary issues" and that he had no comment on the "personnel action" taken by the board.
Board members serve three-year terms. Ehrlich appointed McCurdy in 2005, and O'Malley reappointed him last year. O'Malley also appointed Theresa L. Moore, a private defense attorney in Prince George's County, and the third member, Baltimore defense attorney Margaret A. Mead.
Moore, the trustee who voted against Forster's firing, said in a letter last month to O'Malley that she is "in complete support of Ms. Forster and [has] been satisfied and impressed with her leadership."
Some state lawmakers, including two Baltimore Democrats with legal backgrounds, reacted angrily to the ouster, and attorneys rallied to Forster's defense.
Del. Curtis S. Anderson said the firing "smacks of racism," in part because Forster, who is white, had been asked to remove a black attorney. He said the changes the board requested, namely disbanding the capital and juvenile teams, "directly and disproportionately impacts minorities."
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg said the sudden nature of the termination "raises questions about the process."
"We're talking about people who provide constitutionally mandated legal services," he said. "This kind of massacre of top staff is disruptive to the entire office."
Byron L. Warnken, an associate law professor at the University of Baltimore law school, said Forster, whom he once taught and has known for 25 years, "grew up" in the public defender's office.
"It sounds as if there's some political infighting going on," Warnken said.
Maryland Federal Public Defender James K. Wyda, an assistant state public defender in the early 1990s, said Forster is a "first-rate lawyer and a first-rate person."
"It's a very difficult job made more difficult because nobody really loves funding it," Wyda said, comparing its size and workload to that of the Maryland attorney general's office.
Wyda said the board of trustees was in place to provide separation between the public defender's office and state government. "Whenever there's this sort of change, people will question whether it was done for the right reasons or not," he said, cautioning that the replacement process needs to be fair and open.
Murphy called the firing of his client "petty politics of the worst sort" and said details would emerge to "reveal this absolutely shameful, irresponsible and indefensible action ... for what it really is."
Forster was the third state public defender since the post was created in 1971. Her predecessor, Stephen E. Harris, served from 1990 to 2004 and retired several months after the release of an American Bar Association report that said his office was not vigorously defending juvenile clients.
A longtime appellate attorney in the public defender's office, Forster was selected for the top position after a nationwide search. But her management has faced criticism over the years.
A December 2007 state legislative audit found the public defender's office finances in disarray, with little accounting of administrative fees paid by clients for legal services. The audit noted that the office hadn't pursued tens of thousands of the fees, which are $50 for an adult defendant.
Forster also raised eyebrows this spring by arguing to the state's highest court that drug courts are unconstitutional because they give judges too much power and take away defendants' rights. The Court of Appeals rejected the idea.