(The Center Square) – King County’s Class A qualified public defense attorneys are pleading to the council to seek new caseload standards, saying lawyers are carrying four attorneys’ worth of cases.
Class A qualified public defense attorneys handle the more serious cases for King County. Class A cases include felonies which may be punishable with a sentence of up to life in prison and up to $50,000 in fines.
Over the last two years, the county has lost 18 Class A qualified attorneys and 40 other attorneys, according to King County Department of Public Defense Deputy Director Gordon Hill.
The department currently has about 67 Class A qualified attorneys, but not all of the attorneys can work in a felony case rotation at all times. Hill said only about 36 attorneys in the Kent and Seattle felony units are currently practicing who can handle the most serious cases.
Since 2019, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of open homicide cases. In 2019, there were three open homicide cases. That number increased to 18 in 2020, 36 in 2021 and 42 in 2022.
According to a presentation to the King County Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday, there are currently 47 open homicide cases in 2023 for the 36 qualified attorneys to handle.
Public attorneys who spoke in the committee meeting cited caseload burnout for the decreasing number of Class A qualified attorneys. These attorneys are in a unique situation where they are reassigned more cases as more public defense lawyers leave the department.
The lawyers also said the massive caseload can cause their clients to wait in jail for years until their cases are heard.
Elbert Aull, staff attorney at the King County Department of Public Defense, cited an instance last month where he was doing motions in a first-degree murder case and received an email from his supervisor that assigned him nine new Class A cases due to a couple of attorneys who were departing.
“My caseload in one fell swoop increased between 10-15% in one email,” Aull said in the committee meeting. “That’s what happens to Class A attorneys here when people leave.”
In 2012, the Washington Supreme Court passed a rule limiting caseloads to 150 felonies per lawyer per year and recognizing that complex cases should be weighted more heavily and result in a lower limit. King County has followed that, giving lawyers more case weight for complex cases.
However, a letter from Robert Boruchowitz, a professor of practice at Seattle University School of Law, said that even with that recognition, the lawyers doing the most complex cases have too many.
Boruchowitz cited a recent study finding the previous standards of 150 felonies per lawyer per year to reflect a criminal justice system that no longer exists and professional responsibilities that have since been greatly expanded.
“A lawyer with six open homicide cases also has more than 60 other cases – the new national study makes it clear that a defender should not be assigned more than eight murder cases a year with no other assignments,” Boruchowitz said in the letter to committee members.
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay told the presenters at the committee meeting that a second briefing on the Class A attorney attrition crisis will be held at a later date.