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County Board of Supervisors Fumbles the Public Defender Appointment

The wrong hire for a key job.

Herbert Barish is a veteran trial attorney with decades of experience in criminal defense. He previously worked as a deputy public defender with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office.

Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, or CCB to the cool kids

Questionable appointments and alternative facts may not be limited to President Trump. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently appointed Nicole Davis Tinkham as the interim Public Defender, a $275,000 per year position. Her only qualification is that she’s been licensed to practice law for 14 years. She’ll be leading an organization that has over a thousand employees and a budget of over two hundred million dollars.

To a lawyer whose practice includes criminal defense, and who was a member of the Public Defender’s office 35 years ago, her appointment is frankly appalling. She knows nothing about the practice of criminal law, which is quite different from civil practice. If she was seeking employment at that office, at most, she would be considered for a position as an entry level Deputy Public Defender. For that position, she would have to compete with others. A review of her background reveals nothing that would place her above other applicants.

Ms. Tinkham’s appointment is a slap in the face to the entire system of criminal justice. The following are a few who have a need for the Public Defender’s Office to be run by experienced professionals: defendants, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, victims, relatives of victims, relatives of defendants, jurors, and everyone else in Los Angeles County. The Public Defender represents accused individuals in criminal court who lack funds to hire a private attorney. The clients are typically poor, and overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. Those folks can consider themselves abandoned by a County Board of Supervisors that prefers petty crony-ism.

Ms. Tinkham’s recent employment has been with the County Counsel. The Board of Supervisors has said that it will also send other attorneys from the County Counsel’s office to assist in reorganizing the Public Defender’s Office. But the County Counsel represents the Sheriff’s Department in civil lawsuits. Connecting the County Counsel to the Public Defender creates a conflict of interest when cases arise involving Sheriff’s personnel and its crime lab — that’s a significant percentage of criminal cases in Los Angeles County. Public Defender clients frequently are distrustful of their lawyer’s loyalty. Those clients now have a good reason to be distrustful.

As with any large bureaucracy, the Public Defender has its problems, some quite serious, but the previous person in charge is gone. Existing problems can’t be solved by an interim appointment.

Now for the mystery. Who is Nicole Davis Tinkham and why appoint her? Sheila Kuehl, Chair of the Board of Supervisors, describes Tinkham as an “outstanding attorney, leader and manager” and as someone who will “bring much needed stability to the Public Defender’s office.” Let’s take a look at her background. The County lists her experience as being with the same firm from 2003–2012 — not true. She actually was with the firm through late 2016. That misstatement raises the question of whether there was an intentional attempt to hide information as to her career after 2012.

She, as a member of her then-firm, Collins Collins Muir & Stewart LLP, defended the County on a 2013 automobile accident case. (Newland vs. L.A. County et al). According to Newland’s attorney, the County offered $100,000 as a settlement following the first phase of the trial. The County would be expected to have consulted with its counsel when making the offer. In May of 2016, the jury returned a verdict of $13,935,550 against the County.

The County described Ms. Tinkham as a Senior Deputy County Counsel when announcing her for the appointment as interim Public Defender. The County has strong civil service rules, and the the qualifications for Senior Deputy County Counsel are openly published. Pursuant to those rules, as a lawyer with outside experience, she would have had to spend two years as a Deputy County Counsel to qualify for Senior Deputy County Counsel. Describing her as a Senior Deputy County Counsel seems inconsistent with her being in the office for less than two years. Either she didn’t have the position of Senior Deputy County Counsel, or perhaps she received special dispensation as a reward for her performance on the Newland case.

Had she left her firm in 2012, as the County claimed, she would not have been on the Newland case and might have had the two years with the County Counsel’s office required to become a Senior Deputy County Counsel. The records show otherwise. It appears that she joined the County around November of 2016, hardly enough time for the County to fully evaluate her strengths or weaknesses.

Experience tells us what to expect next. After she’s been head Public Defender for awhile, ass-kissers will say she’s a fast learner, knows how to listen, and everyone loves her. That’s the usual rubbish. The reality is, she won’t understand what the underlings are experiencing. Lack of knowledge doesn’t matter, according to Sheila Kuehl, Chair of the Board. She claims the leaders of large law firms “…do not generally have the same expertise as the people who they hire to do the work.” Nonsense! Let’s get back to reality. There are numerous folks right here in Los Angeles County who would be well qualified. While the preference would be for a lawyer with criminal defense experience, there are retired prosecutors and judges who have more than adequate understanding of the role of criminal defense attorneys.

The Board says it offered the job of Public Defender to two different individuals. Each rejected the offer for the $275,000 a year position. They rejected the offer of a lucrative prestigious position after dealing with the higher-ups of the County government. Following that experience and giving the entire situation a careful look, maybe they rejected the offer because they figured that there’s something rotten in L.A. County.