Chief Public Defender Hugh Dangler was dismissed yesterday by Gov. Susana Martinez's office, Dangler confirmed this morning.
Public defender Sydney West tells SFR that although the department has been wondering if Dangler would be replaced by the new administration, his sudden departure came as a surprise.
"It was yesterday without any sort of warning," West says. "We just basically got an email that said it was his last day."
Dangler was appointed by former Gov. Bill Richardson in July 2008,
and he was announced as former Chief Public Defender John Bigelow's
replacement in May 2008. He says that transition was smooth because it happened mid-administration, which wouldn't be expected during a change of administration. Nevertheless, Dangler's ouster in the middle of the legislative session brings questions for the department's ability to advocate for itself, Dangler and West say. Although former Deputy Chief Public Defender David Eisenberg is still performing some of the duties of that position, that job is technically vacant as well, Dangler tells SFR.
"We don't even have a chief right now," West says. "We're not going to be able to get any funding approved!"
Dangler says he does not object to Martinez terminating him, since he serves at the Governor's pleasure, but questions the manner in which it was done and the motive for ousting him now.
"I fear that I was not taking positions that the Governor liked in various
obligations for the [Chief] Public Defender," Dangler says. "We have a very, very bad budget crisis,
and I was testifying last week in front of the various committees. In
fact it's kind of interesting that my firing comes the week after my
testimony. And I basically said, 'We can't make it with the budget we've been
offered by either the [Legislative Finance Committee] or the Governor. And I think you're supposed to say
that, 'Of course, we support the Governor's option,' and I might have said that,
had I actually had communication with the Governor's office...but instead, since I wasn't getting a lot of guidance, I said
what's happening, which is [the Public Defender department is] at a 20 percent vacancy rate statewide, and
at that rate I can't promise the Legislature that we won't have a
breakdown somewhere in the state."
Dangler says because the vacancy rate at the Public Defender department is higher than that at the District Attorney's offices, it creates the appearance of unfairness in the judicial system.
Martinez never spoke to Dangler about his termination, he says. He just got a letter containing two sentences thanking him for his service. Martinez's office didn't return calls for comment this morning.
"To do [the termination] in the middle of the Legislative session appears to send a chilling message," Dangler says. "If this is an example of boldness then I fear for the state."