BOISE – Kootenai County commissioners voted to end a contract with longtime public defender John Adams three weeks after he made a harassment claim against a commissioner and two weeks after telling the board he’ll need a day off each week for cancer treatment.
Adams has run the public defender office for 17 years and earned broad respect from the region’s legal community. During his tenure, he was the lead attorney on 26 murder cases and seven death-penalty cases, including the state trial of child killer Joseph Duncan.
Adams, 59, said he was stunned by the decision, but the reaction of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho was even more forceful. The organization complained his firing comes at a time when Idaho’s overall system of public defense has been deemed deficient, lacking resources and in some counties falls short of its constitutional obligations.
“We encourage you to take careful pause,” said the letter sent Monday by ACLU of Idaho officials. “Your effective termination of one of Idaho’s best public defenders will serve as an especially ominous illustration of the grave failures of the state’s unconstitutional indigent defense system.”
The ACLU letter cites a 2010 study by the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association that specifically pointed out the need for Kootenai County to avoid exerting political influence on Adams’ office. The report also identified Kootenai and six other counties in the state where the public defender office was deficient or operating at a level that prevented it from passing constitutional muster.
On Monday, an Idaho House committee voted in favor of a resolution calling for the creation of an interim commission to study the state’s public defender system.
Commissioners did not immediately return telephone messages left by the Associated Press on Monday.
First-year Commissioner Jai Nelson, the subject of Adams’ harassment complaint, said last week the county is doing a study of its public defender system, and ending Adams’ services are a step in that process.
In a news release Monday, commissioners said the county has three options for providing legal services to the underprivileged: maintaining an office of public defender, arranging for the assignment of attorneys through a coordinated plan, or a combination of the two.
The commission expects to implement its new plan by Oct. 1, noting, “The board may decide that meeting this duty through continuing an office of public defender is the best and most effective option.”
The release noted that Adams has “served his clients well.”