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Originally published March 15, 2013 at 4:31 PM | Page modified March 15, 2013 at 4:31 PM

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Op-ed: Protecting public defense and King County from risk

Making public defenders King County employees will also include safeguards to protect their independence, writes guest columnist David Chapman.

Special to The Times

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THE state Supreme Court has ruled that some time over the course of its 40-year relationship with King County, the four private agencies that provide public-defense services for the county became “arms and agencies” of county government — and their staffs became county employees for the purpose of receiving public pensions.

That is a new reality. It is one we must all accept and for which the county must now plan.

It is not a change we asked for, but as the person managing the transition to a model for public defense that protects the public interest, I am personally committed to keeping the best of what works and building on that foundation of excellence.

When I started my career as a public defender, we were all idealists in pursuit of equal justice for clients accused of crimes who could not afford an attorney. There was no time for training. You simply grabbed your files and ran to court. No caseload maximums. Not much in the way of staff. No parity in salary with our counterparts, the prosecutors. And no retirement plan from our agencies.

For 10 years I led one of those agencies, the Associated Counsel for the Accused. I helped push for a balanced system of justice, and the King County executive and Metropolitan King County Council members at that time responded with caseload standards, staffing and salary parity with prosecutors.

In 2006, a defender sued to get the same retirement benefits as county prosecutors. That’s the case in which the state Supreme Court ruled, and a tentative $30 million settlement that funds retirements back to 1978 is now before the County Council.

But the ruling creates a fundamental new challenge. I have searched the nation and have found no model where private agencies hire and manage public employees. I’m a lawyer, and any lawyer will say that would expose the county — you, the taxpayers — to the risk of workplace claims from employees who are supervised not by the county, but by private agencies.

King County Executive Dow Constantine has directed me to develop solutions in a manner that protects the public, protects the excellence of the old system and upholds three core values: independence from political interference, avoidance of conflicts of interests, and council oversight.

In a proposal the council is now considering, professional independence would be protected by establishing a Public Defense Advisory Board consisting of lawyers from the bar associations, retired judges and others. These are accomplished barristers who are not beholden to elected leaders and cannot be muzzled.

Conflict-free representation would be assured by creating two divisions within a new Department of Public Defense, enabling separate representation in cases involving multiple defendants or multiple charges and other special circumstances.

The County Council would continue to review caseloads, staffing and salaries, and oversee budgets, ordinances and policies involving public defense. No future executive could unilaterally undo these protections, because the proposal would establish them in county code. A future executive would need the council to change the law.

Some statements we’ve heard are simply untrue. The proposed transition cost is not $13 million but $3.2 million, most of which would fund a unified case-management system that has been recommended by outside studies to create operational efficiencies and cost savings.

This court-mandated reality is not one we chose, but it does present an opportunity to make a great system even better. There is no reason to wait. Taxpayers will get more value through reduced costs of administration, employees get the full county benefits they sought, and the indigent clients at the heart of our system will continue to receive the same excellent public defense they’re getting now.

David Chapman is a former public defender and director of Associated Counsel for the Accused, a nonprofit public-defense agency in King County. He is now director of the King County Office of Public Defense.

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