March 2013 Bar Bulletin
 
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From the Desk of the Executive Director

Can We Find Common Ground in the Public Defender Debate?

By Andrew Prazuch

 

Significant changes have been proposed by King County Executive Dow Constantine concerning the delivery of public defense services in our community, centered around moving this program from outside agencies to an in-house county government function. I am confident he is motivated by a desire to bring efficiencies to county government while maintaining the County's long-standing commitment to excellence in public defense.

The bar's best experts in public defense, specifically the leaders of the four independent nonprofit agencies that manage our current system, were not included in the development of the Constantine's proposal. These agency directors and others have raised concerns about many aspects of the proposal. I am confident they are motivated by their commitment to providing the best representation possible to the clients they serve.

Each side has been actively, but separately, reaching out to constituent groups as they prepare to ask the Metropolitan King County Council to take action. For example, the ConstanĀ­tine's team has been in contact with union representatives for the public defenders. At the same time, the agency directors have briefed the KCBA Board of Trustees on their concerns.

The Seattle Times in a February 23 editorial said "there are many reasons to be skeptical" about the proposal. The newspaper urged that "before rubber-stamping Constantine's proposal, the council should consider all options," concluding that "it may well be worth not fixing what isn't broken."

A driving factor behind the timing to quickly resolve these issues is a proposed settlement to the "Dolan" litigation. This is a case brought by a public defender more than six years ago who argued that he and his colleagues were subject to sufficient government control over their caseloads to merit those defenders receiving retirement benefits paid for by the government. A class was eventually certified and ultimately the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Dolan's argument.


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