City Hall

City Plans to Re-Hire Public Defense Firm, May Take Over Indigent Legal Services

By Erica C. Barnett December 6, 2011

The Defender Association, a nonprofit public-defense agency that represents indigent defendants, spent much of the last year in court unsuccessfully battling the city over its decision not to restore its longstanding contract with TDA earlier this year. (Ordinarily, the city chooses three firms to represent indigent clients---a primary firm, a secondary firm for cases where the first firm has a conflict of interest, and a third firm for cases where both firms have a conflict. Because no one bid for the third position, however, the city hired just two firms this year. TDA argued that it should be allowed to bid for the third position.)

Despite a ruling by a state appeals court that the city had the right to deny TDA the tertiary contract, the city council's public safety committee will vote later this week on legislation restoring TDA's contract, the end of what committee chair Tim Burgess calls a "long and torturous process" that has dragged out more than half a year.

However, Burgess says, as part of that process, the city has discussed moving toward an in-house office of public defense, as many other cities have done. Prompted by a Washington State supreme court ruling that found that public defense firms working for the county were, in effect, county employees entitled to access to the county's pension system, King County is currently reassessing its longstanding practice of hiring outside firms to defend indigent clients, and the city, Burgess says, may do the same. "[The ruling] is going to force us in the future to revisit the issue of whether we should be contracting" public defense services out, Burgess says.

Burgess says the city council and city attorney Pete Holmes' office will probably take up the question of whether to move to an in-house public defense office in 2012 or 2013.
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