Defense attorneys and prosecutors are supposed to be antagonists, so it was striking to hear Minnesota's attorney general speak up on behalf of the state's most prominent public defender.

But there is much about the Christmas-week suspension of Mary Moriarty, the chief public defender in Hennepin County, that makes little sense on the surface.

Attorney General Keith Ellison and Moriarty share a core belief — that the criminal justice system, officially color-blind, is rigged against non-whites. Moriarty, who grew up in New Ulm (her father was Patrick Moriarty, a prominent public defender in Brown County), has become a national leader on the topic, and has not shied away from criticizing the pay discrepancy between Hennepin County's prosecutors and the attorneys in her office.

A bit more than two weeks ago Moriarty was suspended by the state Board of Public Defense. which issued a vague statement saying the suspension was “pending a review of issues that have been brought to the attention of members of the Board of Public Defense.” Moriarty has said she is accused of using inappropriate language, of being inflexible and fostering a "culture of fear," all of which she denies.

Since the suspension, law clerks and lawyers in Moriarty's office wrote to the board in her defense, praising her leadership and commitment to clients and calling for her reinstatement — which stands in stark contrast to the "culture of fear" notion. Dozens of public defenders and public interest attorneys outside Minnesota signed onto a letter objecting to her suspension.

Bill Ward, the state's chief public defender, rather than give reasons for this action, has hidden behind a contracted spokesman who will say nothing about the case. Yes, taxpayers, the public defense board is paying somebody else to say no comment for them.

Ellison and others believe that Moriarty is being targeted for her advocacy of criminal justice reform. If so, it simply adds another layer of oddity to the dispute; one would think that the public defense board would understand the system's inequities at least as well as the attorney general.

The longer the board sits mute — the longer Moriarty is sidelined with no public rationalization — the less credibility the board has, not only on this specific personnel issue but with the larger issue of racial inequity in the courts.

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