Up to the Task
This article was first published in the King County Bar Association’s October 2015 Bar Bulletin.
Lorinda Youngcourt stepped into the complex world of capital defense as a freshly minted attorney. Her first job out of law school was in the capital unit of the Indiana State Public Defender’s Office, where she litigated post-conviction petitions on behalf of people sentenced to Indiana’s death row. She was 25.
Within three years, she became a capital litigation supervisor for the statewide office, which provides post-conviction representation, and a year later experienced her first significant victory, when James Harris’s death sentence was modified to 160 years in prison.
But it wasn’t a sense of outrage over capital punishment that drove her as a young lawyer. That came later. She began working on behalf of clients sentenced to death, she said, because of a deep wish to help people and “my god-awful desire to understand why people do what they do.”
“I never believed that people were evil,” she added. “So I was curious to know: How did you get into this position where this terrible thing happened? What happened in your life? I was never afraid of my clients. I was just very concerned and very curious.”
Now, 25 years and some 15 death penalty cases later, Youngcourt heads King County’s new Department of Public Defense, overseeing a department of 200 attorneys and another 200 paralegals, social workers, investigators, administrators and other support staff. It seems only fitting that she entered the King County system when she did, as this has been a seminal period in death penalty litigation. Since her arrival nine months ago, juries in two separate capital cases (Joseph McEnroe and Christopher Monfort) chose life-without-parole sentences instead of the death penalty, and in a third matter, the prosecutor withdrew the death penalty notice in the case of McEnroe’s co-defendant, Michele Anderson.
“It was deeply gratifying to watch the public defenders in those cases do what it is I always tried to do as a capital defense attorney — and that is, show the jury the humanity of the defendant before them — someone who did something awful, no question about it, but who is, still, a person, a hurting person, a person whose life matters,” said Youngcourt, who stole moments from her packed schedule to step into the courtroom during the trials. “Our attorneys were masterful and compassionate. It was heartening to watch them fight so vigorously and brilliantly to save someone’s life.”
Youngcourt got her first taste for legal practice after she graduated from Indiana University in 1985 with an undergraduate degree in criminal justice. Her first job was as a secretary in a law firm, where she quickly understood what it meant to be low paid and little appreciated in the status-conscience environment of a firm. That experience stayed with her. Today, she feels considerable respect for the support staff around her and finds it hard to utter the word “secretary,” even when that’s the county-issued title.
She entered Indiana University School of Law (now McKinney School of Law) in 1988, where her world again turned upside down. To say she didn’t care for law school is an understatement. “I hated every minute of it,” she said.
But it was in law school that Youngcourt — raised by strict and protective parents — began to see another side of life: one where poor people were hounded by debt collectors and redlined from certain neighborhoods. A professor who taught debtor/creditor law was particularly influential, encouraging her to voice her often strong and passionate opinions, and challenging her to see how a bright and caring lawyer could make a difference in the lives of poor people.
From there, it was an easy step into public defense, where her crusading spirit and background in theater helped her to hone her skills as a litigator. She worked for both the Indiana State Public Defender’s Office and the Marion County Public Defender Agency, where she was a major-felony attorney, handling a full felony caseload, including capital work, then opened her own law firm with two others. Marriage took her to rural Lawrence County, Indiana, in the southern part of the state, where she lived on a 100-acre ranch with her husband, a retired Marion County sheriff’s deputy, raised horses and ran her own small firm.
Again, she focused on capital litigation, serving as a “special public defender” appointed on a case-by-case basis. She also began to develop her teaching career, working as a faculty member at the National Criminal Defense College in Macon, Georgia, the Indiana Trial Practice Institute, and the Indiana University School of Criminal Justice.
Youngcourt found teaching deeply gratifying. “I felt I had amassed a lot of information and ideas after so many years in the courtroom,” she said. “I personally believe it’s important for each and every one of us to give back at some point in their career. Teaching was a way for me to do that.”
In 2010, Youngcourt accepted a new assignment: The Lawrence County Council tasked her to create out of whole cloth a new office of indigent defense for the cash-strapped county. Until then, local judges hired and fired underpaid private attorneys to represent defendants who couldn’t afford an attorney — an antiquated and questionable practice. Within four years, Youngcourt had built a new system — a paperless office of full-time lawyers and support staff funded with state and local dollars, and in compliance with the ABA’s 10 Principles for a Public Defense Delivery System.
In an article in The Hoosier Times, councilmembers, judges and others had nothing but praise for her after she announced she was departing for her new position in Seattle. Youngcourt, one councilmember said, “has earned the respect of all the people she worked with on a daily basis.”
Her task in Seattle is much more daunting than the one she faced in Lawrence County. Her job today: to take four law firms that were once separate and independent — each with its own culture and deep sense of pride — and unify them into a single county department. And as if that weren’t hard enough, consider the circumstances that led to this new department — a class-action lawsuit that went to the state Supreme Court.
For years, public defense in King County was handled by those four firms — nonprofits that received county contracts and existed almost solely for the purpose of providing public defense services in King County. In 2006, one of the public defenders brought a class-action lawsuit against the county, arguing that the employees in the four firms should be included in the state pension system and receive publicly funded pensions upon retirement. Both the trial court and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the class. In the settlement that followed, lawyers for both sides agreed that the firms’ employees would become county employees on July 1, 2013.
But exactly how to do this weighed heavily on the King County Council, the county executive and the four firms and was the subject of considerable discussion. At issue was a fundamental question: How to bring the system in-house while preserving — and even strengthening — the national reputation for public defense that those four firms had garnered over the years. And how to do so without compromising the independence of public defense, a hallmark of the county’s excellent system.
Ultimately, the Council put forward an amendment to the county’s charter, asking voters to approve the creation of a new department structured to ensure independence. The director, for instance, could be fired only for cause; he or she would have a four-year term, staggered, not concurrent, with that of the county executive. Perhaps most significantly, a Public Defense Advisory Board comprised of leaders in public defense and indigent services would play a significant role, helping to choose the department head, advising the director and issuing an annual report on the state of public defense.
Voters passed the charter amendment in November 2013, making the county’s new Department of Public Defense a chartered department. After a national search, the county executive accepted the recommendation of the Advisory Board and selected Youngcourt as the first director of the new department. She came on board on January 20, following Dave Chapman’s 18-month tenure as interim director.
She’s off to a terrific start,” said Marc Boman, a partner at Perkins Coie and chair of the Public Defense Advisory Board. “So far, she’s lived up to our expectations that she’d jump in with both feet, seeking to unify the department, thinking big picture and listening to all the right constituencies, especially employees.”
But Youngcourt’s job isn’t easy, he noted. “The lawyers and staff are very proud of their reputation and history and what they’ve accomplished. She’ll have to convince them that she’s aware of the history and is committed to building on it.”
Youngcourt says she’s up to the task. Over the years, she’s sought out new challenges, rarely backing down from a tough new assignment. Seattle, she added, was a particularly appealing opportunity — challenging, to be sure, but also a chance to build a new system in a corner of the country with a strong commitment to client-centered defense.
“How could I walk away from an opportunity like this?” she asked. “I believe in giving it away. This is an opportunity to give it away on a grand scale."
Leslie Brown, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is the communications manager for the King County Department of Public Defense.