After rocky process, King County confirms head of public defense

Months after her future with the department was thrown into doubt, Anita Khandelwal's nomination passes on 8-1 vote. 

Anita Khandelwal celebrates after the Metropolitan King County Council confirmed her as the new Director of Public Defense. Khandelwal has been serving as the interim director since July. (Photo by Caean Couto for Crosscut)

The King County Council confirmed Anita Khandelwal, 8-1, Monday to lead the 415-employee Department of Public Defense, putting her in charge of legal defense for people accused of a crime but unable to afford an attorney.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Khandelwal is just the department’s second director since its creation in 2013. After a stint as its policy director, she became interim-director last June after King County Executive Dow Constantine informed the department’s previous director Lorinda Youngcourt he would not reappoint her to a new term. Youngcourt resigned shortly thereafter. 

Khandelwal will take over the department as its permanent director just three weeks after the King County Auditor’s Office released a scathing report criticizing the department for failing to adequately track outcomes, lapses in managerial oversight and providing different levels of service to clients in different areas of the department. The audit concluded that many of the problems stem from the 2013 decision to bring public defense in-house.

The issues illuminated in the audit predate Khandelwal and in a committee meeting last week she pledged to craft a long-term vision for the department. The audit, she said, points to “our failure to build consensus, to collaborate with staff and unions on what high quality representation looks like and how we measure for it. Before we do anything else, we need to do that.”

Khandelwal wins the position with enthusiastic support from employees of the Department of Public Defense, who have appreciated her willingness to voice her opinion on criminal justice policy issues. She was also praised by members of the department’s volunteer oversight committee. Associate Dean of the Seattle University School of Law Paul Holland said she “dazzled” in her interview and praised “her attention to detail, the way in which she makes strategic decisions about priorities and develops, with a high degree of consultation, plans for meeting the challenges the department faces.”

But her confirmation was not totally smooth. Early in her interim role, she signed the department onto a letter opposing the construction of the County’s new youth jail, angering some council members.

She won the appointment regardless.

The Department of Public Defense was created after the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that attorneys with four separate public defense contractors in the county could join the state’s retirement system. Following the decision, King County elected to bring the services in house, with a budget of nearly $150 million.

Consisting of about 200 attorneys, it represented nearly 20,000 clients in 2017, providing services for everything from low-level misdemeanors to violent felonies.

There were concerns when the services were brought under the county’s control that DPD could be muzzled from taking controversial opinions on matters related to county government — an independence highly valued by public defense attorneys whose job is often to take controversial stances. In reaction, members of the King County Council drafted language creating a public defense advisory board and guaranteeing the department’s freedom to act independently without fear of reprisal.

But that principle was put to the test for the first time earlier this summer, after Khandelwal’s signed on to a letter opposing King County’s new youth jail, which is currently under construction. She did so in part because DPD employees were frustrated with her predecessor’s hesitance to take strong policy positions.

In response to what he classified as poor communication around the decision, King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove refused to meet with Khandelwal, calling her signature a “stunt.” He told Crosscut last August that he would not vote to confirm her.

The initial backlash from Upthegrove and others was met with strong resistance by members of the legal defense community, who saw it as a breach of independence. In a letter to Upthegrove, Holland of the department’s Public Defense Advisory Board wrote, “Defenders — and especially their leaders — must be able to speak out strongly even when their position runs contrary to those taken by other county officials.”

Constantine nominated Khandelwal in the end. When he did Councilmember Upthegrove changed his tune, saying he’d “calmed down.”

When the issue was raised during Khandelwal’s committee hearing, Upthegrove told her, “It doesn’t even bother me that much that an agency would take a different position, but what concerned me in particular was finding out about it in the newspaper. I was upset about that and I know other colleagues were too.”

Khandelwal reasserted the importance of the department’s independence, but pledged to communicate better. “While I have a lot policy expertise, the politics of the job were very new to me,” she said.

When the time came to vote on Monday, Upthegrove voted in support of Khandelwal’s confirmation — Councilmember Kathy Lambert lodged the only “nay” vote.

Khandelwal’s principal task will be smoothing out the performance issues identified by the King County Auditor. In its report, the office concluded, “The Department of Public Defense has not effectively managed its transition into a unified, high-performing department. It is missing key organizational tools like a robust strategic plan and ways to track and improve performance. This lack of direction impedes DPD’s ability to accurately predict its resource needs, ensure consistent client representation, and determine the optimal organizational structure.”

The audit offered 13 recommendations including developing a strategic plan, adopting case management standards, improving data entry and management, and implementing “objective performance measures.” Khandelwal said last week she agreed to almost all of them.

She added that she was grateful for the chance. “Many places in our country wouldn’t have tolerated a person like me, a woman of color, taking positions that differ from local leaders,” she said. “But here in King County, a woman whose parents are immigrants … that woman can be heard and respected.”

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