Protecting the Independence of Public Defenders
This article is reprinted from the June 2022 issue of Washington State Bar News with the permission of the Washington State Bar Association. It was co-authored by Bob Boruchowitz and Larry Jefferson.
Two Pennsylvania public defenders were fired after they filed an amicus brief in the state supreme court in a case about how the state implements cash bail. The first chief public defender in Birmingham, Alabama, a Black woman, was fired after, among other things, her office obtained dismissals in 20 percent of their cases and favorable verdicts or mistrials in 66 percent of the cases that went to trial.
That kind of interference would never happen in Washington, right? Regrettably, in some Washington jurisdictions, local government officials or local courts have interfered with the independence of public defenders.
In Cowlitz County, the chief public defender was recently fired after her office filed public disclosure requests about prosecution practices. In addition to the public disclosure requests, the chief public defender had hired new staff, implemented procedural changes to comply with the WSBA Standards for Indigent Defense, and acquired new state funding resources for the office. A condition in the settlement offer by the county was that the defender withdraw all pending public disclosure requests she had made in her role as chief defender.3 Although she did not accept that offer, her office withdrew one of the requests. The chief defender’s termination can have a chilling effect on her former colleagues and on others in other counties.
Also troubling is a recent example in Asotin County in which the county hired a lawyer to be a public defender when the lawyer was not admitted to practice in Washington.4
In Grays Harbor County, the juvenile court in 2014 adopted a public defense “case weighting policy” that had several troubling elements. Under this policy, six hours of attorney time was assigned as “the average time expended in the completion of a juvenile offender case, which amount of time ensures effective representation in all cases.” If an attorney were assigned a “serious offense or complex case” the attorney could count the case as two cases “after the attorney has addressed his or her concerns with the Presiding Judge.” The policy further provided that for hearings for violations of sentencing conditions, an attorney would be awarded only .15 of a case credit and that the attorney on average could provide representation in 45-60 minutes.5 This policy no longer is in place.
You can read the remainder of this article here: https://wabarnews.org/2022/06/09/protecting-the-independence-of-public-defenders/