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“Blueprint” for implementing Department of Public Defense sent to the County Council


Ordinance directs how the agency will be organized and operate if the proposed County Charter amendment is approved


The Metropolitan King County Council’s Committee of the Whole today sent to the full Council with a “Do Pass” recommendation, an ordinance that would implement the proposed charter amendment concerning the county’s Department of Public Defense (DPD) if the amendment is approved by the voters.

The charter amendment, which is on the November ballot, would make DPD a charter-based department within the Executive Branch, headed by a County Public Defender appointed by the Executive, subject to confirmation by the Council. The amendment would create a public defense advisory board, which would review and advise DPD and conduct an initial screening of candidates to serve as County Public Defender.

“Today’s action is a step toward ensuring that King County will continue to deliver the nationally-recognized public defense system we are known for,” said Council Vice Chair Julia Patterson, prime sponsor of the ordinance. “Our constitutional rights don’t mean much in practice if accused individuals don’t have effective legal representation. I believe this legislation will make sure that King County’s Department of Public Defense not only work wells, but thrives.”

“This public defense model will continue to provide the public a system that is exemplary due to its strong structure, leadership and financial accountability” said Council Vice-Chair Jane Hague. “I look forward to seeing this take shape.”

“We’re now establishing the details of implementing the integration of public defenders as King County employees, should the voters approve the charter amendment,” said Councilmember Kathy Lambert, chair of the Council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee. “I’m confident this ordinance will ensure that all accused continue to receive the legal representation in King County that they are guaranteed by the constitution and that we remain national leaders in this field.”

“I commend Councilmember Patterson for her thoughtful, diligent leadership on this critical legislation,” said Councilmember Rod Dembowski. “The successful transition of King County’s public defense services to an in-house system could not have happened without her steady guidance.”

The ordinance that the Committee of the Whole sent to the full Council spells out the details of how the charter amendment would work in practice. For example, the proposed ordinance implements the charter amendment by:

• Establishing the qualifications for serving as county public defender;
• Detailing the membership, qualifications, and duties of the public defense advisory board; and
• Describing the process for appointment, confirmation, and removal of the county public defender and the members of the public defense advisory board.

The proposed charter amendment, and the change in the public defense system, has occurred 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 July 1.

The ordinance was sent to the full Council where it is set for discussion and possible action at its October 28 meeting.

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