PHILADELPHIA — The former chief public defender in Montgomery County has filed a federal lawsuit against county officials, alleging he was wrongfully fired “in retaliation” for filing an amicus brief in a case regarding the fairness of cash bail.
In the suit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, Dean M. Beer, of Berwyn, asked a judge to restore him to the position of chief public defender with a contract stating that he may only be fired for “just cause.” The suit also seeks compensatory damages for past and future financial loss, “emotional distress and reputational harm,” as well as punitive damages.
The suit alleged county officials violated Beer’s First Amendment rights and his right to independence under Pennsylvania law.
“Dean Beer was fired for taking aim at a bail system that routinely and unjustly penalizes poor and marginalized people of color,” alleged lawyer Patricia Pierce, of the Philadelphia law firm of Greenblatt, Pierce, Funt and Flores, which represents Beer.
Montgomery County Commissioners Valerie Arkoosh, Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr. and Joseph C. Gale and county Chief Operating Officer Lee Soltysiak are listed as defendants in the suit.
“Since the day I was hired to be the chief public defender, I worked to build an office that zealously represented our clients, both inside and outside of the courtroom,” Beer said in a prepared statement. “The role of a public defender includes fighting for our clients by defending them against systemic injustice.
“Montgomery County’s actions effectively seek to take away our independence and make us another arm of the state. This robs the community of their only constitutionally mandated, uniquely dedicated protection,” Beer added.
On Feb. 25, Beer and Deputy Chief Public Defender Keisha Hudson were let go from their posts during a shakeup that sent shockwaves throughout the courthouse. They were replaced by longtime public defenders Carol Sweeney and Gregory Nester, who currently serve as co-chief deputy public defenders.
The chief public defender and assistants are appointed by the county commissioners. County officials have not commented specifically about the dismissals, citing they are personnel matters.
But some, including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, questioned the timing of the firings pointing out they came after Beer and Hudson filed an amicus brief in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on behalf of the ACLU in a 2019 case regarding the fairness of cash bail.
Several days after the firings about 100 supporters of Beer and Hudson held a rally on the courthouse steps demanding they be re-instated.
The suit claimed Beer was fired for exposing the county’s “unlawful bail practices.” The amicus brief highlighted several alleged examples of how the county’s bail practices left defendants poorly represented, the suit maintained.
“Montgomery County’s bail practices are ‘a matter of public concern’ as they directly impact tens of thousands of Montgomery County residents annually,” the suit said. “(Beer) reported detailed violations to defendant Montgomery County’s unlawful bail policies and procedures.”
The suit alleged Beer was “retaliated against” in violation of the state’s Whistleblower Law.
“(Beer) has suffered and will continue to suffer economic, emotional and reputational harm from defendants’ retaliatory actions and is entitled to reinstatement as well as damages,” the suit read, claiming Beer was fired for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.
According to published reports, Hudson previously filed a similar lawsuit against the county, separately.
The firings remained intact after the March 5 rally and a commissioners’ meeting where numerous advocates asked the commissioners to re-instate Beer and Hudson.
However, the commissioners, after listening to hours of comments from advocates and lawyers, said the county solicitor has been tasked “to start to look into options for making the office of the public defender, both on an interim and on a permanent basis, an independent office.”