Court case slows search for new San Diego public defender
The search for a new San Diego County public defender is on hold after a legal dispute arose over qualifications for the job.
San Diego County Superior Court Judge Michael Washington has filed a motion alleging the county has misinterpreted a key statute in a way that disqualifies him as a candidate.
Washington, who presides over Dept. 23 in North County, was among the applicants for the public defender position after former Public Defender Randy Mize resigned in June.
But Washington’s lawyer, Michal Conger, said the county told Washington he wouldn't be considered for the position because of its interpretation of a law governing public defenders in California that’s been on the books since 1947. The statute says a person isn’t eligible for the office unless he was a practicing attorney in "the year preceding the date of his election or appointment.”
The county did not respond to a request for comment.
Conger said the county interprets that statute as meaning the year right before becoming public defender. Washington’s legal filing asks the court to clarify the law’s intent.
“If you interpret it to mean the year before, you're really inserting the word immediately prior — you're inserting words — and you're not supposed to do that when you interpret a statute,” Conger said.
Conger said Washington worked for 19 years as a deputy public defender in San Diego and 10 years on the bench.
“He's imminently qualified, and it would be ironic if that's interpreted to mean a 26-year-old could get the job, but not a very experienced person,” Conger said. “Judges interpret statutes and one of the things they do is try to avoid absurd results.”
Washington’s case will be heard in an Orange County court to avoid any conflict of interest since he is a sitting judge in San Diego.
In a memo sent to deputy public defenders last week, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Holly Porter said the county recently finished a first round of interviews to fill the position. She added the process has been placed on a short pause to address “some questions that have arisen.”
“I recognize ... both for your office and for the whole community in choosing the right Public Defender to lead your office,” Porter stated in the memo. “This remains a top priority for me and for the Chief Administrative Officer — Helen Robbins-Meyer.”
The delay in selecting a new public defender is the latest twist in a troubling year for the office.
In January, a jury awarded $2.6 million to former deputy public defender Zach Davina in his lawsuit against the county alleging discrimination and retaliation. Davina is gay.
The county never appealed the verdict and actually increased the jury award to nearly $3 million to pay for Davina’s attorney fees. During Davina’s trial, former Public Defender Mize acknowledged under oath that he signed an investigative report into Davina’s firing despite knowing it contained false statements by his managers.
Then, in February, the county paid $900,000 to former deputy public defender Michelle Reynoso to settle her lawsuit alleging some of the same treatment Davina highlighted in his case.
In March, the county hired San Diego law firm Meyers Nave to investigate complaints of unprofessional conduct, unlawful discrimination and retaliation in the public defender’s office.
The findings of that investigation have not been made public.