Clallam commissioners eye indigent defense standards

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County commissioners Tuesday tabled a proposed ordinance that would set standards for indigent defense.

The standards, which stem from a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling, would limit caseloads for attorneys with Clallam Public Defender, the nonprofit agency that represents those who can’t afford an attorney.

The three commissioners agreed to consider the ordinance next Tuesday to allow staff to make technical changes to a three-page document that would become a new chapter in the county code.

Public hearing

“The prosecutor’s office, public defender’s office and Superior Court have worked cooperatively and corroboratively to come up with what we think best meets the needs for this jurisdiction, will help you to protect the interests of the county and simultaneously allow for the comprehensive provision of indigent defense services,” Clallam County Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols said in a public hearing.

The standards in the proposed ordinance would weigh cases based on their nature.

For example, a probation violation that an attorney handles in five hours or less would count as one-third of a full case.

“If they were counted as a full case, it would mandate the assignment of 1˝ full-time attorneys just for the probation violations in District Court,” Clallam Public Defender Director Harry Gasnick said.

“That doesn’t match up with the reality of what those cases actually require.”

Nichols, Gasnick and Superior Court Judge George L. Wood each spoke in favor of the standards.

“I think the good thing about it,” Wood said, “is we’re going to meet the standards but also keep within our current structure.”

Nichols added: “These standards are being recommended by and large as a cost-saving measure and as a best practice.”

“The standards are designed to ensure that we’re in compliance with best practices as dictated by the state Supreme Court, and we believe they are consistent with the spirit and intent of the Legislature in the state of Washington,” Nichols said.

Prosecutorial standards

Commissioner Mike Chapman said he was “not against” the proposal but wondered why there are no standards for prosecutors.

“Suffice it to say, that’s something that may happen at some point in the future,” Nichols responded.

Gasnick said indigent clients have a constitutional right to representation.

“There is no constitutional right on the part of citizens to have adequate prosecution,” Gasnick said.

“The citizens have the ability to assert that right by virtue of the voting booth and by virtue of agreeing to taxation that would commit sufficient prosecution of cases. That’s how that’s done.”

Nichols recommended changing the title of the ordinance from “Public Defense Standards” to “Indigent Defense Standards,” along with two minor changes to the text.

“I don’t think it’s going to change the intent of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Nichols said.

Commissioner responds

Commissioner Jim ­McEntire said he had “no trouble” with the standards but would prefer a “different methodology of adopting such standards.”

“I don’t have any quarrel at all. Matter of fact, I thoroughly support the constitutional right to effective defense for those who are indigent,” McEntire said.

“What in my mind is at issue is what essentially is a command for a legislative act. The separation-of-powers doctrine is a sacred thing to me, and the discretion of a legislative body such as this is to be preserved at all costs.”

McEntire suggested adopting the standards in the county’s contract with Clallam Public Defender rather than adopting them as an ordinance.

“So you adopt these things by administrative action vs. legislative action simply to preserve the legislative prerogative and discretion that we have as a legislative body,” McEntire said.


Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at

Last modified: December 10. 2013 5:47PM
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