Council President Nick Licata
LICATA PROPOSES SOLUTION TO COURT CRISIS
Council President’s new legislation would clarify case loads and establish independent review of proposals by public defense agencies
SEATTLE— Council President Nick Licata, chair of the Public Safety, Governmental Relations and Arts Committee, will introduce a piece of legislation on Friday, September 7, at 2 p.m. to address the crisis in Seattle Municipal Court. Council President Licata said, “We must act now to ensure that municipal court defendants are receiving equal justice under the law.”
On August 6, the Office of City Auditor released a disturbing report on the city’s current contracting practices with public defenders—who represent the indigent in municipal court (available at www.seattle.gov/audit). The Auditor found that because the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) didn’t enforce law requiring caseload limits, one third of the public defenders in Municipal Court were handling far too many cases—more than 380 per year. The auditor found this problem was urgent and needed to be addressed immediately. Council President Licata said, “The City appears to be failing in its responsibility to the poor in the courtroom.”
City government does not hire public defense attorneys directly. Instead the Mayor puts out a “request for proposals” for non-profit law firms to bid on the contract to represent indigent defendants—over 7,000 cases a year— in Muni Court. Since the contract between the City and the legal firms that provide public defense expires on December 31, 2007, now is an ideal time to address the case load issue.
Licata will hear Council Bill 116012 at Friday’s Committee meeting. This bill clarifies the standard of 380 cases for each public defender per year; it establishes an independent review panel of legal experts to evaluate proposals from firms for the public defense contract; and increases efficiency of court operations and options of union representation for public defenders by mandating the development of a larger contract for a secondary public defense agency.
OPM did not use its contract compliance power to enforce the standard established by two previous pieces of legislation. This raises the question of checks and balances. Seattle Municipal Code 3.14.502, also creates OPM as a department unlike any other in that it is “To assist the Mayor and City Council in the development and analysis of high-level Citywide policies on major issues including, but not limited to, public safety…To facilitate the process of developing City policy between the Mayor and City Council by identifying joint priorities and helping to resolve differences.”
Council President Licata said, “If passed by the Council, this law will establish new policies in municipal court. When the Mayor implements this law, there will be greater justice for all.”