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Originally published Friday, February 22, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial: Keep King County’s public defenders independent

King County Executive Dow Constantine’s proposal to upend the well-regarded public-defense system raises troubling questions of independence and political influence.

Seattle Times Editorial

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KING County’s unique, 44-year-old public-defense system is regarded as one of the best in the nation. So there are many reasons to be skeptical about King County Executive Dow Constantine’s recent proposal to end contracts with four independent nonprofit agencies and bring public defenders under the control of his office.

Public defenders are often the only advocate for the poor. They are a bulwark against government overreach and law-enforcement abuse. They are a right guaranteed to defendants by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And sometimes their defendants are actually innocent.

Public-defense work requires fierce independence. Since 1969, King County has contracted with independent nonprofit agencies for indigent defense.

Currently, four nonprofits assure defendants that their lawyers don’t have conflicts of interest, including past representation of victims, witnesses or co-defendants.

The system also assures vital, arms-length distance from political influence. That is no small matter. Independence is the first of the American Bar Association’s guiding principles for public defense.

A pending settlement in a class-action lawsuit by public defenders, in a case called Dolan v. King County, puts this system at a crossroads.

The settlement, following a state Supreme Court ruling last year, grants public defenders full pension and health-care benefits, and makes them, in effect, King County employees. The Metropolitan King County Council is considering approval of the $31 million settlement.

The settlement does not answer a key question: Should King County allow private nonprofits to hire, manage and even fire a group of people who are, in effect, King County employees?

Constantine says no. The county fears outsourcing management could lead to legal liability for, say, hostile workplace claims. Those are legitimate concerns.

But his proposed fix — an in-house public-defense department under the executive’s wing — is troubling. Would an appointed head public defender be allowed to argue for better funding, as the current nonprofits do?

Constantine affirms he values public defense, and proposes an advisory committee as a buffer. But he can make no assurances for his successors. For example, when Grant County shirked its duty to public defense, it paid dearly.

Before rubber-stamping Constantine’s proposal, the council should consider all options. Elsewhere, public defense is managed by independent boards, or by elected public defenders.

Washington, D.C., has a model similar to King County’s current nonprofit system. It may well be worth not fixing what isn’t broken.

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