Connecticut fires Chief Public Defender for raising allegedly baseless racism accusations News
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Connecticut fires Chief Public Defender for raising allegedly baseless racism accusations

The US Connecticut Public Defender Services Commission (PDSC) unanimously terminated TaShun Bowden-Lewis from her position as Connecticut’s Chief Public Defender on Tuesday. Bowden-Lewis, who was the first Black person to hold the role, was fired for misconduct since her assumption of the role two years ago.

According to the Commission’s 113-page decision, her tenure was marked by “significant administrative challenges and a failure to meet the professional standards expected of the office.” The commission accused Bowden-Lewis of creating a hostile working environment by raising baseless discrimination allegations. Specific allegations against Bowden-Lewis included improper management practices, lack of transparency, and failure to address staff grievances adequately. Upon the hearing, the commission panel unanimously found that fifteen of the sixteen charges were substantiated. The panel ruled that Bowden-Lewis “demonstrated inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the impropriety of her conduct”, stating removal was necessary despite her “long laudatory service” as a public defender.

Bowden-Lewis was appointed in June 2022 to great acclaim, but her relationship with the Commission quickly soured as she began challenging its authority. In a March 6, 2023 letter, Bowden-Lewis’s lawyer accused the Commission of “hyper-scrutinizing and undermining her decisions” as a “pretext for discrimination.” According to the decision, all but one member of the then-Commission resigned after Bowden-Lewis accused them of racial discrimination. A new Commission was appointed but the concerns continued. The letter also revealed that two separate investigations had been initiated against Bowden-Lewis.

At an April 2024 hearing, Bowden-Lewis denied 16 misconduct allegations against her. Her attorney Thomas Bucci indicated they will challenge the firing decision, possibly in federal court or through complaints with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights. The public defender’s union, which voted no confidence in Bowden-Lewis 121-9 in February 2024, supported the Commission’s decision.

Also in a letter dated May 23, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and National Association for Public Defense expressed their concerns about the proceedings and urged adherence to principles of defender independence. The letter stated that “Chief Bowden-Lewis’s effort to promote racial equity, inclusion, and community engagement should be applauded by the Commission, not used as a basis for discipline.” It further emphasizes that the commission should take into account the role implicit and explicit racial bias may have played in the matter before handing down its ruling. The associations also argued that “[r]ecent efforts by the Commission to limit Chief Bowden-Lewis’s authority to make personnel decisions and control the operations of public defender services are inconsistent with ABA principles and national standards.”