On Monday, August 13, the city council unanimously passed a resolution directing Mayor Greg Nickels to review the city's public-defense system. A recent audit found multiple problems with the city's existing public-defense contracts. The resolution asks the mayor to work with the council to establish an independent selection process for public defenders and expand the city's contract with The Defender Association (TDA), the smaller of two contracts between the city and nonprofit public defenders.
The council has tried before—unsuccessfully, it turns out—to get the mayor to work to improve the quality of public defense. In 2004, Nickels refused to sign legislation mandating limits on the number of clients public defenders take on and requiring that the public defender should act "independently" of political influence. That legislation was intended to the reduce the workloads of public defenders to reasonable levels, and to make sure the city's public-defense system was not affected by political considerations (such as opposition to left-leaning lawyers' groups like TDA). At the time, Nickels accused the council of trying to "usurp executive authority" ["Nickels Plays Offense," Erica C. Barnett, July 8, 2004]. Mayoral spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel also said Nickels felt the law "just wasn't necessary."
Apparently, Nickels still thinks it's unnecessary. According to the audit released last week, the city routinely allowed lawyers representing poor and indigent clients to exceed the maximum standard of 380 clients a year, on average by more than 10 percent. Worse, the auditor's report called the 380-case standard "antiquated," and suggested the city adopt the American Bar Association's (ABA) standard ceiling of 300 cases a year. In addition, the report found, the city's primary defense contractor, Associated Counsel for the Accused (ACA), frequently substituted written letters for in-person initial communications with clients; that ACA was not reporting to OPM the majority of complaints by clients because they occurred by phone; and that training, performance evaluations, and supervision of attorneys were inadequate.
Moreover, the report found that the city's public defenders failed to fully comply with 6 of 10 ABA public-defense principles. They did not always contact their clients before pretrial hearings, did not adhere to workload standards, and did not provide continuous representation by the same attorney. Perhaps most alarming: The public defense function of the city is supposed to be free from political influence. Yet the report found the mayor directly appointed the entire panel that chose the ACA to handle 90 percent of the city's indigent caseload. Three of those members were mayoral staffers.
Among other recommendations, the audit report suggested the city expand its contract with TDA. Mayor Nickels has opposed expanding TDA's caseload—in part, some suspect, because of a political grudge. TDA was a staunch opponent of the (since-overturned) impound ordinance, which allowed police to impound vehicles for minor infractions, such as unpaid tickets. "They probably got on the wrong side of the mayor," council president Nick Licata says. "Overall, they tend to be more feisty and willing to question city policies." TDA attorney Lisa Daugaard and Nickels spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel were unable to return calls for comment.