Proposal to make permanent the Department of Public Defense
StoryThe Metropolitan King County Council today unanimously approved an ordinance sending to voters an amendment to the King County Charter that if approved would make permanent the King County Department of Public Defense. Public defenders are provided to individuals who cannot afford to pay for their own legal services, primarily in criminal cases.
“Public defense is a vital and state-mandated service,” said Council Chair Larry Gossett. “It is important that the voters of King County have the opportunity to make their choice on the future direction of the agency.”
“The charter amendment is the culmination of six months of work between the Council, the defender agencies, and the County Executive,” said Council Vice Chair Julia Patterson, the prime sponsor of the ordinance. “The voters will now have the last word on what was created by that work.”
“We’ve diligently completed the work required by the court decision and it’s now time for the voters to have their say,” said Councilmember Kathy Lambert, co-sponsor of the ordinance and chair of the Council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee.
The proposed charter amendment, and the change in the public defense system, is underway because of the outcome of a class action lawsuit against the county. King County has historically contracted with private, non-profit entities for the provision of public defense services. In January 2006, a class action lawsuit alleged that lawyers and staff of the non-profits were entitled to public retirement benefits. The Washington Supreme Court ruled in January 2012 that the defenders were County employees for the purpose of retirement benefits. Under the resulting settlement, the employees of the nonprofit agencies became County employees starting today, July 1. This timeline has added urgency to the need to establish a long-term structure for the county's public defense system.
“Today we welcome more than 350 public defenders and staff who have chosen to become County employees, so that they can ensure justice for their clients while securing the same benefits as other county employees,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “I thank the Council for working with me to protect the tradition of strong representation among the separate agencies, while responding to a new reality we did not choose.”
“We are asking the voters to make a decision on the establishment of a county department for public defense,” said Council Vice Chair Jane Hague. “This proposed charter amendment was the result of a Supreme Court decision and the voters will now have a voice on the future of our public defense system.”
“Public defense is critically important to our justice system,” said Councilmember Reagan Dunn. “The voters of King County will now have the final say on this proposed model for public defense.”
“I am pleased that the legislation being considered by the voters includes protection of the public defense function from interference and continues to focus on ensuring access to justice and equity in our criminal justice system, as proposed by the amendment I sponsored last week that is part of the final ordinance,” said Councilmember Rod Dembowski. “I thank our public defense and civil rights leaders for their work on this legislation.”
If the charter amendment is adopted, the new Department of Public Defense would be headed by a County Public Defender, appointed by the County Executive and subject to confirmation by the Council. The Public Defender would not be an elected position but would serve a four-year term which would end at the same time as that of the King County Prosecutor.
In addition, the Public Defender could only be removed before the end of that term for just cause, and would have the right to appeal the removal to the County Council.
The proposed charter amendment also creates a new Public Defense Advisory Board. That board would be responsible for reviewing the activities and plans of the department, making recommendations to Chief Defender on department matters, and advising the Council and Executive in public defense equity and social justice issues.
For more information and background on Public Defense Services, or to submit public testimony on the ordinance, go to: www.kingcounty.gov/pdcomments .