Conflict charged in public defender selection process
An American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada official has raised questions about the propriety of the Washoe County Commission’s procedure for selecting a new public defender. And a national public defenders’ group has added its voice to the chorus.
Long-time Washoe County Public Defender Michael Specchio retired on April 8. In preparation for the vacancy, the county commissioners established a search panel at their Feb. 22 meeting. There is uncertainty about the scope of the search, but commissioner Bob Larkin confirmed that the group was created. Among its members are Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick and Nevada District Judge Jerry Polaha.
The ACLU’s Richard Siegel says that in a county with “30 percent or more of minorities,” the search committee includes no minorities and that there are no women on the committee, even though 40 percent of attorneys are women.
“What we think is at stake is legitimacy,” Siegel says. “We do not think a person with legitimacy can be named by such a committee.”
Since Gammick and his deputies face public defenders in court, he would, in effect, be helping to select his own opposition. Critics say it was inappropriate for commissioners to appoint him and Polaha to the committee, because of Gammick’s conflict and for other reasons.
In a letter to Washoe County Commissioner Bonnie Weber and County Manager Katy Singlaub, Ross Shepard of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association said the composition of the search committee violates established principles within the legal profession for such committees, including those of the American Bar Association. Shepard says his group stands ready to assist the county in reconstituting the committee but also is prepared to take action against the county if nothing is done.
“Though we admittedly do not have first-hand knowledge of the process, it has been reported to us that the selection committee consists of both the District Attorney and the Presiding Judge of District Court. If true, such representation on the committee would violate all nationally recognized standards on public defender independence. … [W]e reserve the right to take appropriate actions if independence of the defense function is not appropriately remedied.”
Members of the committee have reportedly said they are restricting the search to Nevada, though Larkin says his recollection of the commissioners’ decision was that they directed a national search. He says he won’t know for sure until the minutes for the Feb. 22 meeting are completed.
Siegel says the committee has talked of adding ex officio [non-voting] members, which he finds unacceptable. “That would mean—what? That Gammick gets a vote and the head of Nevada Hispanic Services doesn’t?”
Siegel also says the county needs to avoid the fate of the Clark County public defender’s office, which was “excoriated by the national public defender association” for failing to adequately defend juveniles, pleading guilty 97 percent of the time, not keeping adequate office hours, and other practices. In one case, Clark County had to pay $5 million to a former inmate who sued the public defender after spending 14 years on death row for a murder he didn’t commit.
In creating the search committee, the Washoe commissioners chose from options listed on a staff memo. It had a Feb. 2 memo from Specchio attached to it, arguing that “there is NO valid reason to do anything other than appoint from within.” However, the commissioners chose to do a wider search.
On April 12, the county commissioners appointed Chief Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Lunt as interim public defender until Specchio’s replacement is chosen.