The Minnesota Board of Public Defense declined to renew Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty's contract for another four years Wednesday, creating an opening at the helm of the Minneapolis-based judicial district at a time of historic civil unrest.
The vote came after six hours of extraordinary public discussion about a rift between Moriarty and the leadership of the state board that oversees the lawyers who represent indigent criminal defendants.
The discussion included an hour of public testimony in support of Moriarty and touched on some of the most intractable problems in the criminal justice system, such as mass incarceration and racial disparities. In other moments, the discussion felt like a personal battle between Moriarty and the state's Chief Public Defender Bill Ward.
In comments to the board, Moriarty decried what she saw as a double standard regarding her advocacy for clients and staff. She accused Ward of sexism and racism. He denied it, saying Moriarty's inability to work with others and rebuild relationships is the problem.
The board voted 4-2 to open the job for public applications. One board member was absent. That member, Duchess Harris, stated her support for Moriarty before the vote. Another member, former state Supreme Court Justice Helen Meyer, started the day opposed to Moriarty's reappointment, but changed her vote in the afternoon. She joined member Eli Darris against opening the applicant pool.
The vote against her doesn't mean Moriarty is out of a job; her term isn't up until end of the year. Even those who voted against her noted that she can reapply for the job. Under normal circumstances, the personnel discussions would have been closed to the public, but Moriarty allowed the daylong session to be open.
Late in the day, Meyer said she had become concerned that Moriarty, who has been in the top Hennepin County defense job since 2014, had never received a job review from the state office. "It's our responsibility to make sure our employees are reviewed," Meyer said.
Meyer asked about finding a middle ground that would allow Moriarty's employment to be extended with "explicit understandings" on how she would work with the state leadership.
That was a shift from the morning meeting of the board's personnel committee where Meyer was one of three who voted unanimously against renewing Moriarty's contract on the recommendation of Ward.
Ward had opened the day by urging against Moriarty's reappointment, though he called Moriarty a "gifted litigator."
Ward stated that he took issue with the "public narrative" that the board is unhappy with Moriarty's advocacy on behalf of racial justice and clients. Rather, he said, the concern is her "inability" to work collaboratively with other "stakeholders" and the state office. Moriarty refused to follow directives or take responsibility for her actions, he said.
A key issue for Ward and board members was comments Moriarty made a year ago to the Hennepin County Board in which she said the county, not the state, should be overseeing the office. He said she referred to the state takeover of the office as a "failed experiment."
In the morning session, Meyer agreed with Ward, said Moriarty has strong allies and detractors but that a more collaborative leader is needed. The former justice said she was seeking a new leader for the county, and the 120 attorneys who work there, who can "lead us forward" and isn't always "litigating past wrongs."
Joining Meyer in voting to reject Moriarty's appointment were Molly Jannetta and Daniel S. Le.
Le said he was concerned about "an irretrievable breakdown within our own house" involving Moriarty, the board, Ward and board administrator Kevin Kajer.
At the afternoon meeting of the full board, member Herb Kroon pushed forcefully against Moriarty's reappointment, saying her comments to the county last year amounted to "insubordination."
But Moriarty challenged the claim, questioning whether she was being treated differently because she's a woman and an aggressive advocate on racial injustice. She cited the 175 letters of community support that had been written on her behalf to board members. "You are going to ignore that and essentially fire me," she said before the vote.
Moriarty said there's a "double standard" regarding her relationships with "justice partners." She noted that Ward has "bragged" multiple times that Chief Justice Lorie Gildea "hates him" and that he "does not get along with" Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.
She also said that Ward had "bullied" and "harassed" her and belittled her by calling her "young lady."
In response to Moriarty's claims, Gildea e-mailed a statement saying, "I have a collaborative and respectful working relationship with Bill Ward. I have appreciated our partnership, particularly as we work together during the course of this pandemic."
At one point during her comments to the board, Moriarty said, "I guess I'm coming across sounding very angry — and I am."
Among the most forceful of Moriarty's supporters was board member Darris, who tried to table the action against her, saying the system is "inherently adversarial."
He faulted many of the claims against Moriarty as being "deeply personal in nature" and saying "nothing about the performance of her office."
In addition to Le and Kroon, Board Chairwoman Anna Braun and Jannetta cast the four votes against Moriarty.
The state board's dissatisfaction with Moriarty blew into public view late last year when she was put on paid leave after allegations that she posted "inappropriate and offensive" content on social media, had "fractured" relationships with criminal justice leaders in Hennepin County and the judicial branch, and created a fear of retaliation in her office, among other issues cited in the investigation.
The board voted to issue her a letter of reprimand earlier this year and allowed her to return to work, but her reappointment decision loomed.
The discipline shocked Moriarty's supporters, who praised her for advocating for criminal justice reform, communities of color and better pay for public defenders.
But a 41-page report created earlier this year for the investigation revealed a more complicated picture of Moriarty, who is known around the country for her work. It documented some staffers' concerns with Moriarty's treatment of staffers and people of color, found that some staffers felt she ignored their opinions on important issues and that she retaliated against staffers who challenged or disagreed with her by giving them the "cold shoulder" at work.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747