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County Council approves “Blueprint” for implementing Department of Public Defense


Metropolitan King County
Council News

County Council approves “Blueprint” for implementing Department of Public Defense


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


The Metropolitan King County Council today unanimously approved 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 Council’s challenge was to make sure we maintained the nationally recognized model of service we are known for, while developing a new in house system of public defense,” said Council Vice Chair Julia Patterson, the prime sponsor of the legislation. “I believe this ordinance will help us preserve our excellent public defense system well into the future.”

“The defender agencies have a well-earned reputation for their independence and efforts to protect the rights of the defendants they represent,” said Council Chair Larry Gossett. “This legislation represents the culmination of almost 12 months of collaboration with the Council, the Executive, and those who advocate on behalf of indigent defendants.”

“The public should feel comforted by the strong structure, leadership and financial accountability built into this groundbreaking and multi-faceted infrastructure for public defense,” said Council Vice-Chair Jane Hague.

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 charter 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.

“This new plan sets the course for King County to remain a national leader in safeguarding that everyone receives the legal representation to which they’re legally entitled,” said Councilmember Kathy Lambert. “I’m proud that we have such an outstanding reputation; justice for all is taken seriously in King County.”

“Our legal system is based on the premise that all defendants in our courts be provided with effective representation,” said Councilmember Reagan Dunn. “This legislation will help to insure the continued delivery of sound legal representation through our public defense system.”

“Today’s vote is the culmination of months of work by stakeholders and the Council,” said Councilmember Joe McDermott. “I’m happy that the voters have the opportunity to weigh in on our proposed path forward.”

The proposed charter amendment was placed on the ballot because of the state Supreme Court’s decision in a class action lawsuit against the county. King County had historically contracted with private, non-profit entities for the provision of public defense services.

The lawsuit alleged that the lawyers and staff of the non-profits were entitled to public retirement benefits. The Washington state Supreme Court ruled in January 2012 that the defenders were County employees for the purpose of retirement benefits. Under a subsequent settlement agreement, the employees of the nonprofit agencies became County employees on July 1 of this year.

The adopted ordinance 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.

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