COEUR d'ALENE - Lawyer John Adams said Friday he has been notified his last day as Kootenai County's chief public defender will be Sept. 30.
Numerous members of the criminal-justice community stepped forward to praise his work and express their disappointment and shock at the news.
The Kootenai County commissioners unanimously passed a resolution on Tuesday to end his term this fall.
"It's absolutely a termination," Adams said.
Adams said the termination notice comes three weeks after he made a formal complaint against Commissioner Jai Nelson, saying she had allegedly harassed him since she joined the board. The notice comes two weeks after Adams, 59, told Commission Chairman Todd Tondee that he has cancer and will be undergoing chemotherapy and will need a day off each week for the treatment. Facing the loss of his health insurance is scary, Adams said.
"I get this one-line memo (from the commissioners) saying my services are no longer required," he said. "It seems like pretty shabby treatment for someone who put in 17 years."
Adams has headed up 26 murder cases for the county, and seven death-penalty cases. Joseph E. Duncan III is his most notorious client.
Nelson said the commissioners are going to do a "comprehensive study" of the county's public defense system. Setting an expiration date for Adams' services is the first step in that process, she said.
"He may be reappointed," Nelson said Friday. "Periodic evaluation is something that's part of the commissioners' duty."
The National Legal Aid and Defender Association published a study in 2010 saying Kootenai County has the best public defense office in Idaho. The report also said there was too much political influence from the county's board of commissioners.
Nelson said the county hopes to complete its study by this fall. At that time, it's unlikely the commissioners will choose to reappoint Adams.
"They're just going to put somebody in there who they think they can control," Adams said.
"These terms aren't meant to be indefinite," Nelson said. "People don't own these offices."
In a Sept. 30 report of Adams' job performance, Nelson wrote: "The relationship between you and the board has continued to deteriorate over the last year and there have been several instances where you have communicated with the board members in an angry, disrespectful and unprofessional manner."
She said he needed improvement in budgeting, "respectful communication," following "board directives," attendance, and "timely response in communicating issues and concerns with a concerted effort at internal resolution of conflicts."
She graded him a "6" in "job understanding" on a scale of one to 10. He got a "5" in job performance, "6" in productivity, "6" in dependability and efficiency, and "3" in cooperation. His overall score was "5," putting him in the "marginal" range, meaning his performance requires improvement and he needs more than normal supervision.
Evaluations last fall by members of his staff graded him at "9" or "10" in those categories. Many gave him "10" across the board.
One deputy public defender in his office at the time, Anne Taylor, wrote in her evaluation that Adams is an asset to the legal community "and we in Kootenai County are extremely lucky to have him here."
She said he is well-respected throughout the state and is an "excellent" boss.
"He is a good and caring man," Taylor wrote.
Deputy public defender Jed Whitaker wrote in his evaluation of Adams: "Best boss I have ever had."
In an October 2010 exit interview, then deputy defender Sean Walsh wrote: "John Adams was a superb mentor to me, and he does an excellent job of running a very busy law office."
In October, Adams responded to Nelson's evaluation of his performance, writing that in the past 16 years he had received evaluations "laudatory of my work as the public defender until you came to work for the county and then the evaluations of my work have been steadily in decline."
He listed his salary at the time at $99,000.
He added that "either I no longer do a good job as the public defender or you do not evaluate me based upon my legal work, but rather on some other criteria that is simply not a substantive aspect of providing quality legal services to the people that live in our community."
The reaction in the legal community to the commissioners' action was swift and loud.
Craig Kosonen, who spent 25 years on the bench in North Idaho as a magistrate and judge, said Friday, "This is disastrous."
Kosonen, who retired as a 1st District Court judge in August 2001, said Adams operates a "solid" public defense office despite a severe lack of time and money to meet caseloads.
He said that if Adams is being let got for "personal reasons," the commissioners' action is "inexcusable."
David Ducharme, a Coeur d'Alene trial lawyer, said the people of Kootenai County will be hurt the most.
"You never know when you're going to need the help of the public defender office," Ducharme said.
He described Adams as a fearless trial lawyer, a talented cross-examiner, and great leader of his deputies.
"I don't think they can replace John, with the degree of professionalism he brought to the job and instilled in his deputies," he said. "The most professional thing I've seen in my 33 years in law was John's representation of Duncan. That was a beyond-difficult job."
He added, "The county is going to need a politician in that position now to put up with this person Jai Nelson, who is a wannabe lawyer."
James Siebe, one of North Idaho's top criminal defense lawyers, described the news as "catastrophic."
Siebe said, "John is the best guy for any public defender job anywhere."
He pointed out that Adams is listed as one of the best lawyers in the U.S. every year.
"He's a lawyer's lawyer, and a mentor for lawyers in the state," he said. "He takes care of his troops."
He said Adams could have easily been a giant in any field of law.
"He had to fight with the commissioners all along the way," Siebe said.
Adams was hassled unfairly by Nelson, Siebe said.
"The public defender office has to be an independent functionary to work properly," Siebe said. "You can't be part of a team with the commissioners and the prosecutors."
He said "those caught in the jaws of the justice system" are now going to be punished by the commissioners' decision.
Former Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas said he was "shocked," describing the firing as "shameful."
"John Adams has been the best public defender in the history of Kootenai County," said Douglas, who served as the county's prosecutor for 20 years. "He is the most qualified criminal defense lawyer that I know, and he has saved the county vast sums of money through the efficient running of his office."
Douglas said Adams is the most qualified death-penalty lawyer in Idaho, a tough adversary, and a dedicated and loyal public servant.
"Perhaps the commissioners didn't truly appreciate his abilities and talents," Douglas said. "He will be impossible to replace."
He called Adams' firing the result of "unnecessary meddling by the commissioners."