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Affirmative litigation - Public Defense

Learn how the Department of Public Defense is litigating in support of systemic change.

The Department of Public Defense (DPD) engages in affirmative litigation across several practice areas as part of our effort to address systemic racism and reduce the harm and reach of the criminal and civil legal system. This effort to address systemic issues that affect our clients is in keeping with 1 of 3 strategies in our strategic plan:

Partner with the community to dismantle the systems that oppress our clients and advocate for pathways that will allow them to succeed. Where traditional systems remain, use our community partnerships and expertise to make them less harmful and more restorative.

Our affirmative litigation focuses on issues that directly harm our clients, often based on court practices our frontline attorneys experience in their direct representation.

For instance, we filed a lawsuit in April 2021 (Khandelwal v. King County) over King County Superior Court’s practice of making pretrial conditions set by the District Court harsher and doing so ex parte. This practice, which public defenders have been objecting to for years, violates our clients’ right to counsel under the state constitution, their due process rights, and specific court rules. Pretrial release is also significant because of the way it shapes our clients’ outcomes in the criminal legal system: Studies show that even a small number of days of pretrial custody can harm clients, increasing the likelihood they will be found guilty, lose housing or jobs, or be convicted on new charges in the future.

We challenged the state Department of Children, Youth & Families for the department’s failure to invoke the Indian Child Welfare Act at the outset of a dependency action, a case we won when the State Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in In re Dependency of Z.J.G. & M.E.J.G.  (241KB)

Learn more about our litigation work in support of lessening the harm of the family regulation system.

We also file amicus briefs in support of appellate advocacy by other agencies or organizations, bringing to the court’s attention relevant facts and arguments it might otherwise not hear and that bear directly on our work with clients. In 2021, we filed nearly 20 amicus briefs in a wide range of cases, the outcome of which would have significant impact on our clients’ rights and/or on the practice of law: e.g., the issue of “active efforts” under the Indian Child Welfare Act; the role race plays in the imposition of long sentences on youth; the racially disparate impact of including an offense committed by a youth in a three-strike calculation, and much more. Nearly all of these briefs were filed with community-based partners.