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Judges and Judiciary,
Civil Rights

Feb. 12, 2018

‘Public defender’ isn’t just another job

The Los Angeles public defender has the potential to be the most influential public defender in the nation — and the office must have a qualified permanent leader.

On Jan. 23, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed Nicole Davis Tinkham as the interim public defender of the Los Angeles County public defender's office, even though she has never represented any person accused of any crime and fails to satisfy any of the qualifications published by the Board of Supervisors for the position. Not surprisingly, this decision was met with overwhelming concern and sent shockwaves of disapproval throughout the criminal justice community. Public defenders, judges and even prosecutors were dumbfounded by this appointment. Not only does the decision deprive the Los Angeles public defender's office of a qualified leader, but it is a slap in their face and to public defenders across the entire state.

Being a public defender is not just another job. When a poor person is facing the overwhelming power of the government trying to take away their freedom and, in some cases, their very life, they must be represented by an attorney who has been trained in the special skills necessary to represent an individual charged with a crime, has the experience to use those skills wisely, and has the commitment to care enough about the person to provide a dedicated defense.

Make no mistake about it: While the Board of Supervisors may rationalize that often the chief public defender doesn't go to court and represent individual clients, the chief must have the intimate knowledge of the skills, training and experience required to effectively represent the tens of thousands of indigent clients represented in their name, and must be able to inspire their lawyers and entire staff to do their best for their clients. Otherwise, they cannot hope to be able to identify the best attorneys to hire, the best supervisors to appoint, the best ways to train their lawyers, or the most pressing needs that must be addressed in order to provide quality representation to their clients.

And to be sure, it is not only the public defender's clientele who demands these qualifications, but society as a whole. Our entire criminal justice system is dependent on a foundation built on a bedrock of quality advocates for both the prosecution and defense. We trust that the truth will prevail when both sides are well-trained and prepared. But if that foundation is missing, the risks of wrongful convictions and unfair punishments only increase, causing our entire society to lose faith in the ability of our courts to deliver justice and protect the public.

Mrs. Tinkham, an attorney who has practiced law for 14 years, may be qualified to practice in her previous position with the office of county counsel, but she is not remotely qualified to lead the oldest and largest public defender office in the nation. She has never litigated the simplest misdemeanor case, much less a complex or serious felony. She has never visited a jail to advise a 19-year-old client facing the rest of his life in prison that it is in his best interest to plead guilty in exchange for a prison sentence of 20 years. She has never tried a murder case or sat with a client or his family after he has been sentenced to life in prison. She has never participated in a criminal case consultation or discussed the immigration consequences that will result from the resolution of her client's case. She has never prepared a mitigation letter asking the district attorney not to pursue the death penalty against her client. She has not experienced in any way, shape or form what it is like to be a public defender. And she has never received any training on any of these things. If anything, her limited experience only evinces the complete opposite, given her previous civil representation of a deputy sheriff who shot a 15-year-old boy because he was brandishing a toy gun at deputies that responded to a trespassing call.

The clients of any public defender's office are most often low income people of color. They are some of the most vulnerable members of our community. They often need the services of the public defender when they are at the most desperate time in their life. They deserve to have a public defender who cares about them and one who has a proven track record in indigent criminal defense.

Public defenders are often overworked and underpaid. They have chosen this job because they care deeply about ensuring that the clients they serve are treated fairly by a justice system that often appears to do the exact opposite. The person to lead this office must have experience with both those clients and with the criminal justice system in order to effectively serve the needs of both.

We are at a critical point in the history of criminal justice in California. Criminalization of poverty, mental health, homelessness and bail reform are important issues that will be addressed this year. The Los Angeles public defender has the potential to be the most influential public defender in the nation. Indeed, the office should be a leading force on these issues. It is critical that the person selected have the experience and ability to lead the national discourse, while also fiercely advocating for their clients and staff. Unfortunately, the current selection is likely to harm the office of the Los Angeles County public defender, the people it serves, and the entire county of Los Angeles. We strongly hope that the Board of Supervisors reconsider their position on the interim and that they continue, strengthen, and renew their efforts to appoint a qualified leader as the permanent public defender of Los Angeles County.


Ben Armistead

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