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County Council adopts interim structure for new Department of Public Defense with four separate divisions

Summary

Defender staff working for the four existing public defense agencies will become county employees, stay in place while Council, Executive and agencies work on a long-term structure

Story

The Metropolitan King County Council today approved an interim structure for the delivery of public defense services in King County, a system that will include a new King County Department of Public Defense initially comprised of four separate divisions.

This interim structure is a consequence of a state Supreme Court ruling holding that public defense employees are entitled to participate in the State retirement system and a subsequent settlement requiring that they become County employees on July 1.

“The legislation was the Council’s way of ensuring a smooth transition when the staff of the non-profit defender agencies becomes county employees on July 1,” said Council Vice Chair Julia Patterson, chair of the Council’s Committee of the Whole. “It is also an example of our commitment to collaborate with the public defender agencies in implementing the transition so the clients they assist continue to receive high-quality legal representation.”

“The Council and Executive are working together on the the reorganization of the delivery of public defense services in King County,” said Council Chair Larry Gossett. “Today’s legislation ensures that the clients of public defenders in King County will continue to receive excellent representation.”

“This interim structure is a commitment that the clients will continue to receive the same quality of legal representation they are entitled to during the transition,” said Council Vice Chair Jane Hague.

Patterson is the prime sponsor of the ordinance that specifies the county organizational structure for the 355 public defense employees now in four private corporations who will become County employees. In the short term, it is expected these employees will physically remain in their respective offices and continue to handle their current cases. The council plans to continue to consider the long-term structure for delivering public defense services.

“It’s important that there be a smooth transition with the attorneys per the Dolan decision,” said Councilmember Kathy Lambert, chair of the Council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee. “Justice needs to continue in a seamless manner while transitioning 355 employees into the county.”

“Public defense is the hallmark of a properly functioning legal system,” said Councilmember Reagan Dunn. “The interim plan approved today ensures the integrity of our system will be maintained as we transition to an updated public defense model.”

“Today’s ordinance is an important first step forward in restructuring our public defense system in King County,” said Councilmember Rod Dembowski. “I look forward to working with my colleagues and the community in the months ahead to build a system for the future that preserves independence, the ability to advocate for important reforms, and that is accountable to the taxpayers.”

The ordinance requires the director of the new department to meet the American Bar Association’s Ten Principles for a Public Defense System and adhere to the Washington State Standards for Indigent Defense Services in establishing caseload limits for attorneys.

“With the Council, I am committed to building a unified system that creates greater consistency and accountability, provides a stronger voice for public defense within both County government and the criminal justice system, and ensures parity between public defenders and prosecutors,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “In the interim, this measure will keep our new employees in their current locations while we work together on the long-term structure for public defense.”

The adopted ordinance also provides authority for the County to contract with tribal governments, the city of Seattle and the state of Washington for King County public defenders to represent clients in tribal courts, Seattle Municipal Court cases and in Sexually Violent Predator cases.

“With this change, it is necessary to be mindful that the goal of any public defense system is quality representation of those without means accused of a crime,” said Don Madsen, managing director of the Associated Counsel for the Accused, one of the four nonprofit corporations that provides public defense services in King County. “Our lawyers and staff have in the past, and will in the future, continue to advance toward this goal, while helping build a structure that allows and rewards individuality and independence.”

The Council in March approved a proposed settlement of the Dolan v. King County lawsuit, a class action seeking public retirement benefits on behalf of public defense employees in King County. Under that proposed settlement, the employees of the four nonprofit agencies that currently provide public defense services in King County will become County employees on July 1. The proposed settlement, which would end seven years of litigation, has received preliminary judicial approval.

Today’s action includes a supplemental budget of $2.3 million to cover costs related to transitioning the 355 agency employees to County employment on July 1, as part of the Dolan settlement.

For 40 years, King County has provided public defenders for those accused of crimes but unable to pay an attorney. Since 1973, those services have been overseen by the County’s Office of Public Defense and contracted out to what are now four private, nonprofit corporations – The Defender Association, the Associated Counsel for the Accused, the Northwest Defenders Association and the Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons.

The Dolan lawsuit, filed in 2006, claimed that the employees of the public defense agencies were entitled to the same public retirement benefits as those provided to County employees. In 2011, the state Supreme Court ruled that the private defense firms have become, in its words, "arms and agencies" of the County and that the defenders are therefore County employees for the purpose of those public retirement benefits.


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