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For several years, public defense services were provided by four nonprofit organizations. Those organizations have become part of the Department of Public Defense and no longer exist as independent nonprofits. But collectively, they form a rich legacy of public defense in King County, a legacy that is still honored and celebrated in legal circles throughout the region.

A brief look at the nonprofits and their histories

Associated Counsel for the Accused, founded in 1973 by Irving Paul, was the second nonprofit law firm launched in Seattle to represent indigent clients. Paul, a Harvard Law School graduate known for his flowing hair, long beard and leisure suits, cut a colorful figure in Seattle’s early days in public defense. Jennifer James, a cultural anthropologist and former Seattle Times columnist, called Paul “a defense attorney from heaven” who “looked like he had just rolled off a park bench after a hard night’s sleep.”

Paul launched ACA with a couple of other attorneys, setting up the new office at 1 Yesler Way, a brick building on the western edge of Pioneer Square. His passion for helping those who were poor infused his small firm, colleagues recalled, as did his philosophy of empowering clients to make informed decisions about the charges they were facing. Under Paul and his successor, Roy Howsen, social workers were hired in an effort to secure treatment rather than incarceration for mentally ill defenders. ACA also began to work on the development of specialty courts, groundbreaking efforts to extend alternatives to incarceration into the courtroom. Today, largely because of ACA’s advocacy, King County has several specialty courts – including a mental health court, a drug court, a community court and a veterans’ court.

ACA grew quickly over the years. The firm nearly doubled in size in 1984, when accusations of financial mismanagement by the director of the Eastside Defender Association forced it to fold and the county asked ACA to absorb much of EDA’s staff. ACA’s felony caseload also continued to grow as did its work in other specialty areas, such as juvenile law. In 2005, ACA became the primary defender for the city of Seattle, providing services to people accused of a crime in Seattle Municipal Court. Over the years, it moved offices a few times, ultimately landing at the Prefontaine Building on the eastern edge of Pioneer Square.

Dave Chapman, a long-time champion of indigent defense, replaced Howsen as the head of ACA in 1999. When Chapman stepped down in 2008, Don Madsen became the firm’s new head, continuing the tradition of fierce public defense established by his predecessors. In 2013, Madsen received the Washington State Bar Association’s lifetime service award, one of the most prestigious awards in the state’s criminal justice system.

The Northwest Defenders Association was the youngest and smallest of the four public defense law firms to become a part of the county in July 2013. It was started in 1987 by Rufus McKee, a public defender with the Associated Counsel for the Accused, who launched the firm in part because he wanted to promote greater diversity in public defense. NDA was the first minority-run public defense firm in Seattle.

The new firm set up shop in the Interurban Building in Pioneer Square and began handling misdemeanor work for the Seattle Municipal Court. Gradually, the agency expanded, taking on felony and juvenile cases and hiring more attorneys. When McKee quit in 2002, Lamar Mills, his long-time deputy, took over.

The firm experienced some problems after McKee left and eventually ended up in receivership, with Jeff Robinson – a leading Seattle attorney – acting as the receiver. In 2002, he asked Eileen Farley, then a pro-tem judge considered a leader in judicial reform and criminal defense work, to step in and get the agency back on course. By all accounts, she did so, re-instituting strong accounting procedures and setting high standards for attorneys – creating, along the way, a firm considered among the best in the quality of its attorneys and staff.

Under Eileen’s leadership and with encouragement from the board, NDA also began to increase its focus on representing people for whom English was a second language. Eileen hired bilingual employees. She and her staff partnered with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and other leaders, advocating for criminal justice reforms for the immigrant and refugee communities. Among NDA’s successes, the firm played a leadership role in 2013 helping to convince the county to limit its participation in civil immigration enforcement.

When NDA became part of the county, it had close to 70 employees – 30 percent of whom were bilingual – handled a broad array of cases and was considered a leader in immigration representation and advocacy.

In February 2014, Eileen was tapped to oversee public defense services in the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington, following a landmark federal suit that found the two cities routinely failed to provide adequate legal representation. 

Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons was founded in 1976 by Bob Nickels, the father of former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, to address what he saw as a grave problem – the lack of adequate representation for teens and children involved in the juvenile justice system. The firm opened its doors in a house on 12th and East Pine near the King County Juvenile Court and began providing representation to indigent youth accused of misdemeanor and felony offenses and to parents and minors in abuse and neglect dependency cases. The office was staffed by two attorneys.

Society of Counsel grew steadily over the years, moving to larger offices and eventually becoming a staff of more than 90 people – including not only attorneys, but also paralegals, social workers, investigators and more. Its area of practice grew as well. Over the years, it added adult felonies and misdemeanors; family law contempt of court; juvenile offender; and sexually violent predator cases. It set up partnerships with the University of Washington School of Law Child Advocacy and Seattle University School of Law Clinical programs, strengthening its already robust practice and bringing more resources into child advocacy and public defense.  

Society of Counsel also worked to address broader challenges their clients faced in an effort to help them avoid future entanglements with the system. It launched a partnership with human service agencies and neighborhood and faith-based groups to provide mentoring and legal representation to youth of color involved in the juvenile justice system and in need of social service intervention. Called ROYAL, or Raising our Youth as Leaders, the highly regarded program continues to thrive, with funding and support from King County. In 2001, Society of Counsel worked with partners to start another innovative program, called the Immigrant Child Advocacy Project – organized to address the unmet legal needs of indigent non-U.S. citizen children who were victims of abandonment, abuse or neglect. In May 2002 the program was turned over to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Society of Counsel was also instrumental in developing the Washington Defender Immigration Project.  

The Defender Association – the oldest of the four firms – was founded in 1969 with Model Cities’ funding, a mere six years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that the right to counsel extended to the states. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney John Darrah, later a King County Superior Court judge, was the first director, working with a staff of four out of a small office in the Smith Tower. In 1970, TDA secured the first government contract to provide public defense work in King County.

The firm established early on its determination to address systemic barriers to justice, successfully challenging, for instance, the prolonged periods suspects were held in the city jail without appearing before a magistrate and the practice of requiring a defendant in a criminal traffic case to post bail to obtain a trial date. Its logo – St. George slaying the dragon of injustice – captured the firm’s zealous spirit.

Over the years and under the leadership of TDA’s longest-serving director, Bob Boruchowitz, TDA became both a regional and national model, known for furthering criminal justice system reforms and providing client-centered representation. It hired skilled attorneys, as well as dedicated support staff, all of whom were fierce advocates for the rights of their clients. It became one of the first public defense firms in the nation to hire social workers and garnered national attention for its legal intern program and investigator intern program. It also implemented programs that addressed some of the underlying issues its clients faced.The most well-known of these are TeamChild, now an independent agency, which breaks down barriers to community services for youth involved in the juvenile justice system, and the Racial Disparity Project, which works on numerous fronts to reduce racial bias in the criminal justice system. 

In 1983, TDA helped found the statewide Washington Defender Association, which provides case assistance, training and advocacy for defenders across the state. Additionally, TDA sought state funding to assist lawyers handling death penalty cases. When TDA became a division of the county’s Department of Public Defense, the agency’s Board of Directors renamed its organization the Public Defender Association and assumed responsibility for it; PDA now houses the Racial Disparity Project, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), and other programs that work to reform justice system.

Floris Mikkelsen, who served as the director of TDA for more than six years, became the new department's deputy director until her retirement in 2017.