Despite opposition to her appointment, Anita Khandelwal was approved Nov. 5 by an 8-1 vote of the King County Council to lead the county’s Department of Public Defense.
Khandelwal, a graduate of Yale Law School and a public defender at the department since 2013, has led the agency of 415 employees since June as the interim director. Former director Lorinda Youngcourt had resigned after King County Executive Dow Constantine notified her that she wouldn’t be reappointed because of discontent about her leadership style among her subordinates.
Then, in early October, Constantine nominated Khandelwal to serve as the permanent director of the department after a nationwide search.
In contrast to her predecessor, Khandelwal is widely supported among the department’s public defenders who herald her as both an effective agency administrator and a bold leader who is willing to take controversial public positions on criminal justice policy. To illustrate this, public defenders turned out en-masse to support her at a Oct. 29 King County Council hearing on Khandelwal’s appointment.
“Our public defender can’t just simply be a good lawyer. She has to have a vision of what good public defense can be, and Anita has that,” Marci Comeau, a public defender who works in Seattle Municipal Court, said at the hearing.
“She’s earned the respect of everyone from legal assistants to line attorneys to management, which is not an easy thing to do with us,” said another public defender, Leslie Somerstein. “She gives us a voice as well as our clients.”
Paul Holland, chair of the advisory board of the Department of Public Defense — the entity that conducted the search for a new director — said at the hearing that Khandelwal “dazzled” the board during her interview.
The passionate testimony also reflected an underlying anxiety among public defenders over whether Khandelwal would actually be approved by the county council to lead the department. Back in August, Khandelwal faced backlash over her public opposition to the controversial new youth detention center from both county council members and, reportedly, Constantine, who allegedly conveyed that he wouldn’t nominate her to be director due to her position. Constantine’s staff has denied this and Khandelwal was nominated anyway.
Rumors were abundant prior to the Nov. 5 vote that Seattle Municipal Court judges were lobbying county council members to vote against Khandelwal’s appointment due to her support of a proposal from the Budget for Justice coalition — a group of organizations advocating for criminal justice reform — to defund municipal court probation services in the 2019-2020 Seattle city budget, which is currently being discussed by the Seattle City Council.
“It obviously raises some concerns about judicial independence,” said Dustin Lambros, political director at Teamsters Local 117 (a labor union that represents managers and supervisors in the Department of Public Defense), of the rumors. “I personally think judges in their personal capacity as citizens can have opinions on issues like everyone else, but I don’t think they can weigh in on a political process. That does, I think, undermine their judicial independence.”
“It’s freaking out many of our antagonistic counterparts who are not used to having someone who takes the role of advocating for reform in the criminal justice system seriously,” Molly Gilbert, a investigator at the Department of Public Defense, told Seattle Weekly. “When those voices who are not all supposed to be a part of the political process [judges] started influencing the political process, that really freaked us out.”
Both Judge Ed McKenna, presiding judge at Seattle Municipal Court, and Gary Ireland, a spokesperson for the court, declined to comment on the matter. McKenna did give an interview to KIRO 7 where he condemned the divestment proposal. According to Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, the divestment proposal has been quashed by her colleagues and won’t get written into the 2019-2020 city budget.
The various instances of backlash to Khandelwal’s occasionally controversial public policy positions contributed to a broader concern among public defenders that the department won’t be able to operate with autonomy and independence since it was formally folded into King County government back in 2013. Previously, the county’s public defenders served clients through a handful of non-profit legal organizations.
“It’s not our job to agree with you all, it’s our job to represent the most marginalized people that don’t have a voice,” public defender Somerstein told the county council at the Oct. 29 hearing.
Adding to the uncertainty was a damning report published last month by the King County Auditor’s Office that argued that the department is failing to track case outcomes, provides inconsistent legal service to similar types of clients, and is generally suffering from overall poor organizational structure. The audit attributed many of the problems to the public defenders’ rocky transition into a formal governmental agency.
“The Department of Public Defense has not effectively managed its transition into a unified, high-performing department. It is missing key organizational tools like a robust strategic plan and ways to track and improve performance. This lack of direction impedes DPD’s ability to accurately predict its resource needs, ensure consistent client representation, and determine the optimal organizational structure,” the report reads.
The audit’s findings — in addition to her public policy stances — led some county council members to pause at voting for Khandelwal. At the Oct. 29 hearing, council members Reagan Dunn and Kathy Lambert both voiced concern about the audit’s findings.
“Are you going to be an activist? An activist-manager? Are you going to shift gears?” Dunn asked her.
Khandelwal eventually replied that while she will always communicate controversial stances taken by her and the department to council members and agencies prior to going public with them, her loyalties are with the clients of public defenders.
“The role of public defense is very clear. We are accountable to people that are accused of crimes and it is our job to represent them and to pursue their goals when they are charged with a crime,” she said. “As a policy matter we can engage in broader conversations, but always with that lens, always with the lens that we represent the poor people of King County that are accused of crimes.”
She also said that her department will finish their “strategic planning process,” which will help address many of the issues outlined in the audit.
At the Oct. 29 hearing, she was approved with a 6-3 vote, with council members Lambert, Dunn, and Pete von Reichbauer voting against her. Dunn said at the hearing that his no vote was because he still had unaddressed questions about the audit.
At the Nov. 5 final vote, Khandelwal was quickly approved with a 8-1 vote, with only Lambert voting against. Lambert told Seattle Weekly prior to the vote that it was Khandelwal’s leadership style that rubbed her the wrong way. “She needs to work [collaboratively] with the rest of the criminal justice system,” she said.
“I am honored and humbled by the opportunity to serve our community as the director of the Department of Public Defense,” Khandelwal said in a statement following the Nov. 5 vote. “I believe deeply in our mission, I hold the staff in high regard, and I have profound respect for the community of partners who are working with us to improve the criminal legal system. I look forward to what we’re able to achieve, on behalf of our clients and the broader community, over the next four years.”