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Is the new public defender ending or stoking office turmoil?

Is the new public defender ending or stoking office turmoil?
A woman walks in front of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles on May 18, 2017. (Los Angeles Times)

Turmoil at the Los Angeles County public defender's office may be putting the lives and liberty of thousands of county residents in jeopardy, and the immediate question is this: Is the appointment late last month of Nicole Davis Tinkham as interim public defender the problem? Or is it actually a necessary first step toward a solution?

For hundreds of unhappy deputy public defenders, who represent indigent people accused of crimes, the answer is simple. They are circulating a petition calling for Tinkham's immediate removal. "#notmyPD" wristbands and tweets have become quite the thing. A Monday rally decrying the appointment is scheduled for near downtown's Clara Shortridge Foltz courthouse — named for the pioneering late 19th and early 20th century lawyer and activist who is credited with the whole idea of public defenders in the first place. The deputies are hoping to be joined by activists for poor and marginalized people, who they argue are unfairly targeted for prosecution and who rely heavily on the advocacy of competent attorneys and a properly resourced defense office to conduct investigations, prepare exhibits and supply specialized expertise.

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Their complaint is straightforward and undisputed: In her entire career, Tinkham has never tried a criminal case. She handled civil litigation and other matters at a private law firm and, more recently, at the county counsel's office.

How, her deputies ask, can a lawyer with no criminal courtroom experience properly fulfill the 6th Amendment's guarantee of effective assistance of counsel for criminal defendants, especially those without the means to hire private attorneys?

This latest episode of trouble at the nation's first public defender's office (founded in 1913) necessarily raises a number of related issues. There must be reasons that an office that was once a bastion of steadiness and self-confidence and was once on the cutting edge of criminal defense no longer is.

It certainly does not help that the Board of Supervisors has failed to appoint a permanent public defender since the last one, Ronald Brown, retired at the end of 2016. Lawyers in the office have worked for more than a year under one acting or interim leader after another. But morale was already crumbling, and allegations of mismanagement, poor communication and cronyism already were widespread before Brown left.

The problems may well affect the quality of representation. The most recent high-profile example is public defender client George Vasquez, who was locked up in a state hospital for 17 years awaiting trial — in part because the public defender's office kept switching his lawyers. Last year, a deputy public defender was alleged to have abandoned a different client, leading to State Bar disciplinary action — and a request for the county to pay for the deputy's defense, and an allegation by the deputy's supervisor that the interim public defender lied to the board about the circumstances of the case.

In her entire career, Tinkham has never tried a criminal case.


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More generally, the office has fallen behind trend-setting counterparts such as the Bronx Defenders. That contract agency and others like it champion an approach known as holistic defense, in which lawyers go beyond merely seeking acquittals or the lightest sentence. They defend against collateral consequences of guilty pleas, including immigration sanctions. They provide a kind of "aftercare," working with family lawyers and activists to see that their clients are connected with housing and other available benefits while their criminal cases are pending and after they are resolved.

Many lawyers in the Los Angeles County public defender's office want to provide the same scope of representation. But their office isn't equipped for that — they lack the resources and the seamless connections they need with other county agencies.

The Board of Supervisors called on its temporary appointees to help figure out how to improve the department, or to at least keep the status quo, pending fact-finding and recommendations. Tinkham's predecessors, however, haven't delivered what the board needed. Now, along with Tinkham, the supervisors have sent over an entire team from the county counsel's office.

They've made the job harder by picking someone in whom the deputies have little trust. If she wants to avoid merely continuing the tumult, Tinkham would be wise to spend at least part of her six-month tenure conducting a serious listening tour around the office — and also around the broader criminal justice community. She should be prepared to report not just on the office's management problems, but on its potential. For example, can clients, and justice, be better served by enhancing ties with county offices such as the Department of Children and Family Services? The Board of Supervisors ought to keep its collective ears and minds open as well, so the county can end up with a properly resourced and managed public defender's office that recaptures the leadership it once demonstrated.

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