For decades, four nonprofit agencies have handled King County’s public defense cases. Sometime in the next year, King County will begin supervising the agencies.
A 2011 court decision found that King County owes retirement benefits to current and past public defenders who worked for the four nonprofits. The ruling means the defenders are all county employees and can no longer operate independent of the county, county officials say.
In response to the ruling, County Executive Dow Constantine proposed putting all the public defense agencies under his supervision. Representatives from the four agencies say they want to stay independent so they can represent clients without bureaucratic oversight and can lobby the county for adequate funding.
The King County Council will get to make the call.
Council President Larry Gossett said the council is considering three options. None of them are exactly what Constantine or the public defenders have proposed; all of them bring formerly independent agencies under the auspices of county government.
“I think the majority of the [King County Council] members are already leaning toward some form of ‘in-house’ public defense system,” Gossett said.
County officials say the 2011 court decision gives them no choice. In 2006, Defender Kevin Dolan, who worked for the Associated Council of the Accused, filed a lawsuit on behalf of all public defenders, arguing that they deserved the same pension benefits as county employees. The state Supreme Court agreed.
Now the county is restructuring a 40-year-old system that defense advocates say should remain largely unchanged. Many who work in public defense fear they will lose the time and resources necessary to help clients. Currently four different agencies negotiate with the county for funding and caseloads. Without that negotiation, defendants will suffer, they say.
Public defenders, along with local attorneys, academics and national experts, argue King County’s current model is a national leader and should be replicated.
Each of the three proposals appoints a single county public defender to head the program, but the proposals differ in how that person is chosen. Under one proposal, a committee appoints the defender; in another, voters elect the public defender; in the third proposal the county executive appoints one of three defenders selected by an independent advisory panel.