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California lawmakers reject L.A. County public defender bill

August 10, 2012 |  8:44 am

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Amid concerns about conflicts of interest and double-dipping, the state Senate has deadlocked over a customized bill that would allow Los Angeles County to appoint a judge as the public defender.

The bill failed to win a majority vote Thursday, with several Los Angeles County lawmakers voting no or abstaining. It may come back next week for reconsideration. The measure was requested by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors after it was told in 2010 that it could not appoint a sitting judge as public defender because state law requires that officer to be a practicing attorney for at least a year before the appointment. 

The board appointed someone inside the public defender’s office last year but sought the legislation so that it could have flexibility in the future, according to Sean Hoffman, a spokesman for Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita). Smyth's  bill, AB 259, would allow an appointment as long as the person steps down as judge before taking office as public defender. "We're just giving the board a broader pool to choose from,'' Hoffman said.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) voted against the bill because of concern it could allow a judge to retire and begin collecting a full pension while concurrently receiving a six-figure salary as the county public defender, according to spokesman Mark Hedlund. Hoffman noted that the bill only applies to one position in one county, so it would not create a potential for widespread abuse by judges.

Other legislators shared the concern of the Crime Victims Action Alliance, which opposes the measure because a public defender could face a disqualifying conflict-of-interest if a defendant had appeared before the appointee when he or she was a judge.

Hoffman noted there is an alternate available if the county public defender has a conflict, and that the district attorney is currently allowed to apply for public defender even though that too could lead to a conflict of interest.

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-- Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento

Photo: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), shown during a floor debate earlier this year, said this week that he can't support a bill allowing judges to be appointed as the Los Angeles County public defender. Credit: Hector Amezcua / The Sacramento Bee/AP Photo

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