King County Executive Dow Constantine has nominated Anita Khandelwal to be the director of the county Department of Public Defense, an agency of 400 employees which serves defendants in King County District and Superior Courts as well as Seattle Muncipal Court.
Khandelwal has served as interim director of the county’s public-defense office ever since her predecessor, Lorinda Youngcourt, resigned in July after Constantine told her he wouldn’t reappoint her due to negative feedback from staff about her leadership. (Specifically, staff complained that she wasn’t proactively taking strong public stances on policy issues.) Prior to that, Khandelwal was the department’s director of law and policy. She joined the department back in 2015.
Constantine’s nomination comes several months after Khandelwal’s longevity as head of the Department of Public Defense was called into question by her public opposition to the new youth detention center in Seattle and the subsequent backlash from county elected leaders. King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove told Crosscut in August that he wouldn’t vote for her if she were nominated, and Constantine allegedly relayed to Khandelwal that she wouldn’t be nominated over her criticism of the project. The controversy also called into question the independence of the public-defense department, which was brought under the umbrella of the county executive branch in 2013.
But now, publicly, Constantine has only praise for Khandelwal: “Anita is the best candidate to lead the Department of Public Defense and the challenging and important work it does every day. I listened to employees and stakeholders who wanted a change at Public Defense, and I am convinced Anita can best fulfill its mission to serve some of the most vulnerable people in our region—people who are personally affected by institutional racism, poverty, mental illness, and marginalization,” Constantine said in a statement released on Oct. 3.
“I am honored and humbled at the opportunity to work on behalf of our clients every day,” said Khandelwal in the release. “I’m excited at the prospect of supporting DPD staff in providing high-quality representation and collaborating with the community and other leaders in advocating for a more just and equitable criminal legal system.”
Khandelwal still needs approval from the county council. Councilmember Rod Dembowski, who chairs the council’s Committee of the Whole, said in a statement that he would move fast to schedule her confirmation hearing. “I commend Executive Constantine for making this nomination; it shows he respects the independence of this office as set forth in our charter and knows that those advancing differing views on critical public-policy issues, shared and debated, are essential in driving change and achieving the better justice-system outcomes for King County residents we all desire,” he wrote.
Councilmember Upthegrove, who previously said he wouldn’t vote for Khandelwal, has changed his tune, texting Seattle Weekly that he was originally concerned with Khandelwal’s “failure to communicate with county leaders before signing a county agency” onto a position that is at odds with the county council. He added that he was “surprised and angry with her poor communication” but has “calmed down since then” and has not yet decided how he will vote.