COEUR d'ALENE - The ACLU of Idaho and a state defense lawyer organization sent letters Monday to the Kootenai County commissioners criticizing the board's move to dump chief public defender John Adams.
The Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which has 300 members statewide, wrote that the county should "preserve the integrity and expertise" Adams brings to the county's public defender office. Adams has held the position for 17 years.
Kootenai County Commissioner Jai Nelson said last week that the board has decided the county will undertake a comprehensive study of its public defender system. Getting rid of Adams is the first step, she said. The commissioners didn't respond to a request for comment Monday.
According to the association's letter, "We too must add our voices to those who recognize that it is the people of Kootenai County who will lose if your decision stands."
The letter said the commissioners' decision was premature, having been made before the county's study was completed.
"It appears to presuppose the outcome of any comprehensive evaluation would be a recommendation for new management of the office, or to disband the office and move to an assigned counsel system," the letter said.
The association criticized the commissioners for exerting political influence on the county's public defense office, echoing a criticism from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. The NLADA completed a study of the county's public defender system and others in the state, ranking Kootenai County in 2010 the most client-centered and best in the state under Adams' leadership.
"With Mr. Adams' predetermined termination, it appears that the commission's influence over the office has increased, rather than decreased, since the last professional evaluation," the letter said. "This moves Kootenai County further from a public defender system meeting basic, recognized standards of professionalism."
The ACLU letter also criticized the commissioners for the board's undue political influence.
"We encourage you to take careful pause," the ACLU of Idaho wrote. "As county commissioners, you know that your decision is not a final one. You should swiftly and unequivocally correct it."
The organization complained his firing comes at a time when Idaho's overall system of public defense has been deemed deficient.
The ACLU letter was signed by executive director Monica Hopkins, staff attorney Jason Williamson, and legal director Richard Alan Eppink.
Adams has headed up the defense in 26 murder cases, and seven death-penalty cases. Joseph E. Duncan III was a client.
Adams has said the termination notice came to him just weeks after he made a formal complaint against Commissioner Jai Nelson, saying she had allegedly harassed him.
In a Feb. 10 email to John Cafferty, the chief attorney for the county's legal department, Adams wrote about "the increasing level of hostility, and in this case retaliation, I feel, directed at me" from Nelson.
Adams complained in the email that Nelson said he needed to pay for a laptop with his personal funds, even though he purchased it for work.
Adams continued, "I want to put you on notice that I am and have been subjected to a steady and increasing level of interference in my legal duties from Commissioner Nelson that is causing me to suffer from an unreasonable degree of stress above and beyond that normally associated with my duties as the public defender."
Adams also recently told Commissioner Todd Tondee that he had cancer and would need a day off each week for chemotherapy.
The commissioners issued a press release on Monday to "answer a number of questions that have been asked concerning" their decision to initiate the public-defense-system study and set Sept. 30 as the end of Adams' term.
"The board recognizes that the current public defender, John Adams, has provided this service for in excess of 16 years and has served his clients well," the release said. "The term of office for a public defender has a minimum of two years. Mr. Adams continues to serve as Kootenai County public defender and is eligible to be reappointed for another term."