NORRISTOWN — Today, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a complaint on behalf of 15 residents of Montgomery County, alleging that the Montgomery County Commissioners committed more than a dozen violations of the Sunshine Act by firing top public defenders Dean Beer and Keisha Hudson and appointing their replacements in a secret, closed meeting.
The Montgomery County Commissioners — Valerie Arkoosh, Kenneth Lawrence, Jr., and Joseph Gale — fired Mr. Beer and Ms. Hudson on February 26 after the Office of the Public Defender filed a brief in support of an ACLU of Pennsylvania lawsuit challenging the use of cash bail in Philadelphia. The defenders’ brief called out similar issues with the use of cash bail in Montgomery County. The defenders later withdrew the brief at the direction of the Commissioners but were fired anyway. A group of private defense attorneys in Montgomery County re-filed that brief in early March, ensuring that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hears the argument that Beer and Hudson intended to make.
The Sunshine Act mandates that actions taken by public agencies, such as the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, be made in public — and the action must be preceded by an opportunity for public comment. While the Sunshine Act allows discussion of personnel matters to occur in closed executive session, the final vote to hire or fire a person must occur at a public meeting.
In firing Dean Beer and Keisha Hudson and naming their successors without an open debate or the opportunity for the public to comment, the commissioners violated numerous provisions of the Sunshine Act. The Sunshine Act allows residents of the county to bring a lawsuit to undo the illegal actions but requires that lawsuit to be brought within 30 days. The plaintiffs in this suit ask the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas to void the illegal terminations, which would have the effect of reinstating Mr. Beer and Ms. Hudson.
“The process by which the Montgomery County Commissioners fired Dean Beer and Keisha Hudson illustrates the commissioners’ antipathy towards criminal justice reform and indigent defense,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “These missteps have a chilling effect on public defenders across Pennsylvania and could end up significantly costing Montgomery County taxpayers.”
The complaint was filed on behalf of Montgomery County residents Jules Epstein, Sara Atkins, Marc Bookman, Michael Conley, Christine Cregar, Christa Dunleavy, John Fagan, Peter Hall, Chris Koschier, Rev. Beth Lyon, Elena Margolis, Emily Robb, Karl Schwartz, Adrian Seltzer, and Leonard Sosnov. The plaintiffs are represented by Mary Catherine Roper, Andrew Christy and Hayden Nelson-Major of the ACLU-PA and by Eli Segal and Martha Guarnieri from the law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP. A copy of the complaint can be found here.