September 2013 Bar Bulletin
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September 2013 Bar Bulletin


New Era Dawns for Public Defense in King County

By Jon Ostlund


I believe King County's new Department of Public Defense will work quite well. In fact, I believe the system will only improve — and clients will get even better representation — as public defense becomes an equal player in the county's robust criminal justice community.

I base this belief in large part on my own professional history: For 24 years, I was the chief public defender in Whatcom County where public defense was a department housed within the executive branch.

There are pros and cons to any system of public defense, but from my perspective, there's one significant advantage to a county-run department. It means the lead public defender will be at the table with the prosecutor, the sheriff, the chief judge and other players in the criminal justice system, an equal voice as policy, budgets and procedures are discussed.

A disparate system like the one we had in King County, where four nonprofit law firms were contracted to provide services, put public defense at a disadvantage when it came to policy discussions. This new structure puts public defense where it should be — on a par with other leaders in King County's criminal justice system.

The county decided to restructure its public defense system earlier this year after the state Supreme Court ruled in a class-action lawsuit that contracted public defenders were "arms and agencies" of the state and deserved to receive state pension funds. In the settlement that followed, both sides agreed that the current employees — some 355 public defenders, investigators, social workers, paralegals and other administrators — would become county employees on July 1.

The Metropolitan King County Council responded vigorously, holding six hearings and pouring countless hours into an analysis of public defense in King County. It recently created a new Department of Public Defense, with an interim structure where those four law firms are now divisions within the department.

Some have criticized the restructuring, suggesting an in-house department won't have enough independence from the executive and could suffer from political interference. I question the validity of that concern, especially as it applies to King County's new department.

The County Council has wisely decided to put a charter amendment before voters that, if passed, will do much to ensure the department's independence. The lead public defender will have a term of office that's coterminous with that of the prosecutor, not the executive. He or she can be fired only "for cause." And the executive will select the public defender from a list of names put forward by a Public Defense Advisory Board comprised of people who will be quite able to act independently of the executive.

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