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Charter amendment on the organization of public defense sent to County Council for final action

Summary

Council to act on sending to voters proposal for a new Department of Public Defense

Story

The Metropolitan King County Council’s Committee of the Whole today took a major step to establishing a new model for public defense services in King County. The Committee unanimously sent to the full Council for final action legislation that would ask voters to consider an amendment to the King County Charter creating a 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.

“The lawyers and staff working in King County’s public defense system have a nationally-recognized reputation for excellence, which they have earned through innovative work on social justice issues and staunch independence from political influence,” said Council Vice Chair Julia Patterson, Chair of the Committee of the Whole and prime sponsor of the legislation. “The Charter Amendment that passed through Committee today incorporates those important aspects into an in-house model at King County. It will preserve the values of independence, creative thinking, and justice.”

“We welcome the employees of the Office of Public Defense as official employees of King County,” said Councilmember Kathy Lambert, Chair of the Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee and co-sponsor of the legislation. “We have worked very hard over the last several months to be able to bring this function in-house, which is only the first step out of many to implement the court ruling. Citizens will now have the opportunity to vote on these proposed charter changes. Additional specifics enacting this transition will be provided in an implementation ordinance pending that vote.”

“Today’s action is the culmination of many months of hard work by my colleagues on the Council and many people in the public defender and criminal justice community,” said Council Chair Larry Gossett. “I believe this Charter Amendment not only complies with the court's ruling in the Dolan decision, but it also protects the rights of the most important people - those who do not have the resources to defend themselves.”

The proposed change 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 proposed settlement, the employees of the nonprofit agencies will become County employees on July 1. This timeline has added urgency to the need to establish the best long-term structure for the county's public defense system.

The structure recommended to the Council by the Committee of the Whole today reflects months of hearings, analysis, and stakeholder calls, letters, and meetings with Councilmembers. Emerging from that discourse has been a picture of 40 years of public defense excellence that must be preserved.

The ordinance recommended today by the Committee of the Whole would send to voters at the November general election ballot an amendment to the King County Charter that would create the King County Department of Public Defense.

“As a result of a Washington Supreme Court decision, this charter amendment we are placing in front of the voters preserves the excellence of our public defense system,” said Council Vice Chair Jane Hague.

“Thorough work by the Council developed this charter amendment. We thoughtfully crafted it to protect strengths of our nationally recognized public defense system,” said Councilmember Joe McDermott. “Today's vote is not the end of this work. We now turn our attention to the details in the ordinance that will reorganize the Department.”

“A properly functioning and independent public defense is paramount to fundamentals of our justice system,” said Councilmember Reagan Dunn. “This new structure for public defense in King County has been thoughtfully reviewed and amended to ensure equity and social justice principals were included. I look forward to seeing what the voters of King County have to say.”

Under the charter amendment, 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. To reduce the risk of potential political considerations in public defense the Public Defender would not be an elected position and 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. These job protections are designed to ensure that the Defender can act to the fullest of his or her professional ability to fulfill the duties of the office, including providing smooth, uninterrupted delivery of constitutionally required public defense services to indigent persons in King County.

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. The Board is one of the ways in which the proposal draws in public defense voices from the community to continue to advise the county on ways to improve its system and provide the best representation possible to its indigent clients.

The Council unanimously adopted an amendment sponsored by Councilmember Rod Dembowski that expressly empowers the Department of Public Defense to “foster and promote system improvements, efficiencies, access to justice and equity in the criminal justice system.” The Dembowski Amendment also insulates the Department of Public Defense from interference by any elected official with the duties of the department.

“The elements that make our public defender system one of the best in the country were recognized and slated to be enshrined in the constitution of King County,” said Dembowski. “I thank our public defense and civil rights leaders for supporting my amendment to this legislation.”

Today’s vote is the culmination of a process that began at the start of the year with the Executive's proposed model. The Committee of the Whole has received a nearly unprecedented eight briefings on the issues surrounding public defense services in King County.

“If approved by the voters in November, this proposal will give our Public Defender the strong, independent voice needed to continue our tradition of excellence and independence in public defense,” said Patterson. “I am proud of the action we took today, but I also recognize that working out the details and ensuring success will take time. It will also require the expertise and commitment of our public defense community to get us there.”

The legislation has been sent to the full Council, and will be on the Council’s Monday, July 1 meeting agenda for discussion and possible action.


For more information and background on Public Defense Services, or to submit public testimony on the ordinance, click here
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