In a sometimes snippy 5-4 decision, the Washington State Supreme Court today upheld a lower court ruling that King County's public defenders are eligible for the state's Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). The ruling in Kevin Dolan v. King County could end up costing county taxpayers tens of millions dollars.
Justice Pro-Tem-For-Life Richard Sanders ruled with the majority a year and a half after allegedly being tossed off the bench by voters, while Justice Charles Johnson wrote a scathing dissent in which he ridiculed the majority's conclusion as as "implausible, if not exactly backward." Meanwhile, Justice Tom Chambers' majority opinion aggressively parried the dissent throughout, while dissing the arguments made by the county's attorneys as "at best obscure and at worst nonsensical."
Meow! I guess this is what comes when lawyers fight about laws that impact lawyers.
The court ruled that by asserting near complete control of the putatively independent defenders associations' budgets, bylaws, and boards, the county had effectively made the associations "arms and agencies" the government. And if public defenders are essentially public employees, then they have just as much a right to PERS as prosecutors.
Public defenders were reportedly pumping their fists in the air as news of today's ruling spread around the courthouse. "I think defense attorneys are the only people in the courthouse who don't have a pension," explained Defender Association director Floris Mikkelsen in welcoming the decision. It's been five years since the suit was first filed, and could take another couple years to reach a final remedy, but Mikkelsen hopes they can negotiate an agreement sooner rather than later: "The county would save a lot of attorneys fees if they could come to some agreement they can live with."
Though either way, I guess, lawyers end up making money.