King County and the plaintiff in a class action lawsuit that will shape the future of local public defense have announced a tentative settlement. As expected, the proposed settlement would make public defenders county employees.
"Vindicated," said plaintiff Kevin Dolan when asked for a comment. As we wrote earlier this month, however, the people his suit claims to represent aren't necessarily on board.Dolan sued the county over what he saw as unequal treatment of public defenders, compared to prosecutors and virtually everybody else who work in the courtroom. They receive a state pension, while public defenders do not. A state Supreme Court decision agreed that defenders should have access to state retirement benefits, and kicked the case back to a lower court to decide whether the county should go whole hog and make the public's attorneys bonafide public employees.
Public defenders currently work for one of four independent agencies: The Defender Association, Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons, Associated Counsel for the Accused and Northwest Defenders Association.
Dolan has told SW that county employment is the way to go. But the heads of all four agencies, valuing their independence, have balked at the idea, which in a letter to county council in early December they called "breathtaking" and reached without public input.
The proposed settlement doesn't spell out the details of how a new public defense system would work, beyond the fact that defenders would be "recognized" as county employees with full employee benefits for their positions, beginning next July. "How King County accomplishes this recognition, and how it organizes the public defense function, are left up to King County and are not part of this settlement," said a county announcement late Tuesday.
County Budget director Dwight Dively says there are various possibilities. "One obvious option, and the one I believe the county executive will recommend, is to make one county agency" devoted to public defense, he says. But he says he could also imagine "multiple" county agencies and those might have "government structures different from traditional county agencies."
An agency might be run by its own board or commission, for example, he says. One current county agency, called 4Culture, exists as a public development authority. So there might be a way for public defenders to maintain some of their independence, if the county is willing to go for it.
The tentative settlement also sweetens the pot by specifying that public defenders would be entitled to retroactive pension benefits that would go as far back as 1978. The county says it expects the payments to amount to $31 million.
Before it can become final, the county council needs to approve the settlement. Then, class members would have a chance to object before Pierce County Superior Court Judge John Hickman, who also must sign off on the deal.