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Seattle's public defense agencies are ratcheting up their opposition to a proposal that would dissolve their organizations and turn all public defenders into county employees.

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Public Defense Agencies, Faced With Dissolution, Call Upon County Council to Reject 'Breathtaking' Proposal

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Seattle's public defense agencies are ratcheting up their opposition to a proposal that would dissolve their organizations and turn all public defenders into county employees. All four agencies sent a letter to county council leaders on Wednesday asking them to reject the proposal, laid out to them last week by the county Office of Public Defense.

*See Also: The Horse's Mouth: Kevin Dolan, Who Filed Pivotal Lawsuit, Talks About King County's Plan to Make Public Defenders County Employees

Their letter essentially asks: Why is the county doing this?

The agencies--The Defender Association, Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons, Associated Counsel for the Accused and Northwest Defenders Association--say they have been told that that the proposal is driven by a 2011 state Supreme Court decision, which held that public defenders are entitled to state retirement benefits, just as prosecutors and court employees are. The decision stemmed from a class action lawsuit brought by a veteran public defender named Kevin Dolan. As we wrote in February, Dolan was fed up with getting what he considered inferior benefits.

And he's apparently pleased with the idea of defenders becoming county employees. In an interview with SW published Monday, he called the creation of a new county public defense agency a "logical outcome" of his suit.

That puts him in sharp disagreement with at least the leaders of those he purportedly represents. The agencies' letter, signed by their directors, portrays the proposal as wholly unnecessary. "The Washington Supreme Court held in Dolan only that public defenders for purposes of eligibility for the state retirement system must be treated as if we were employees of King County." In other words, they do not actually have to be county employees.

And in fact, TDA deputy director Lisa Daugaard tells SW, such a scenario is "happening now." Due to the ruling, public defenders have been receiving state retirement benefits since April while still maintaining their status as employees of independent agencies. "Nothing has to change," Daugaard says.

But Dave Chapman, head of the Office Of Public Defense, points out that the Dolan case is not over. While the Supreme Court decided the retirement issue, it remanded the case back to the trial court to decide other questions, one of them being whether public defenders are, for all intents and purposes, county employees.

In that context, the county has been engaged in settlement talks with the plaintiff's legal team. And he says he was merely reaching out to the defense agencies to "bring them to the table" as discussions progress. "There is no final plan," he says.

But the agencies aren't taking it that way. In their letter, they refer to a "decision," one whose implications are "breathtaking," yet insufficiently weighed. "Any such change should be the subject of public discussion," the letter says.

A central change that has got the agencies up in arms is the potential loss of their independence. Daugaard contends that this is a matter of public interest. She cites times in the past that the agencies have gone directly to the council to lobby against budget cuts proposed by the county executive. The cuts would have dramatically increased the workload of defenders, and thus compromised their ability to adequately defend their clients, Daugaard says.

Chapman, however, contends that even if defenders become county employees, there could be ways of maintaining their independence.

Please see the agencies' letter on the following page.

Public Defense Agencies' Letter

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