COMMENTARY: On a funded and independent Northwest Defenders

By Donald Mukai
For the Northwest Asian Weekly

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Northwest Defender Executive Director Eileen Farley and Donald Mukai (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

A picture of my mother hangs on the wall at Northwest  Defenders Association. She is carrying a small suitcase and walking with her younger sister, who smiles at the camera. Next to their picture is the “Order of Civilian Exclusion,” telling citizens of Japanese ancestry, like my mother and aunt, which Seattle streets they cannot cross. The school my mother attended — Seattle Pacific University — was outside the boundaries set in the Exclusion Order. The Order ended her life as a student and her dream of becoming a teacher.  

Shortly after the picture was taken, my mother and her family were sent to a lonely desolate internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho. When World War II was over, she and my father moved to Spokane, where they raised a family of three boys.  My brothers and I have been blessed by their sacrifices and endurance.

The picture and the copy of the Exclusion Order explain a 2012 internship in honor of my mother created by the Northwest Defenders Board of Directors, on which I served as a member and treasurer for several years.

Interns, in addition to learning to be public defenders, also work on projects challenging laws that hurt immigrants and refugees.  Last summer, the interns worked with Executive Director Eileen Farley researching a challenge to King County’s practice of voluntarily honoring Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer requests. In King County, anyone booked into jail, whether suspected of a minor traffic offense or a serious crime, whether or not found guilty, or even that the prosecutor decides not to charge, will be turned over to ICE at the end of their case if ICE asks for them.  In the past two months, ICE has even asked that King County turn over three youth held in juvenile detention.

This research was part of a more than year-long effort by Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Director Jorge Barone, Immigration Project attorney Ann Benson, Ms. Farley, and others to persuade King County to modify its practice of voluntarily honoring ICE detainer requests. Last month, King County Executive Dow Constantine sent a letter to the King County Council asking them to say that in King County, only persons charged with serious crimes will be turned over to ICE.  Now, Mr. Barone, Ms. Benson, and Ms. Farley will work to persuade the Council to turn the Executive’s request into law.

Northwest Defenders is one of four nonprofit public defender agencies that in 2013 will represent almost 30,000 poor people, including many people of color, immigrants, and refugees, who are charged with a crime or whose children the state seeks to remove from their parents. In 2011, a consultant hired by King County observed that “[t]he provision of indigent defense services in King County has historically been seen as among the finest in the nation …”

However, in November 2012, King County Executive Constantine announced he would end the county’s 40-year relationship with the agencies and beginning July 1, 2013, public defenders would work directly for King County. His decision follows a Washington Supreme Court decision giving public defenders working for the agencies the same benefits given to prosecutors.

If the independent agencies are gone and only county employees remain, who will question King County about why they are cooperating with ICE?  Who will create a Racial Disparity Project, like the one at The Defender Association, or the ROYAL program at Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons, which matches young men of color with mentors? These programs challenge how King County does business. Will public defenders who are county employees do this?

The Seattle Times, the King County Bar Association, Seattle Municipal Court Presiding Judge Kimi Kondo, and King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Richard McDermott have sent questions and concerns about the Executive proposal and the turmoil his timeline may create for clients and the courts. This year is the 50th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainright, which held that anyone whose liberty the State seeks to take has the right to be vigorously defended by an attorney. I urge the Executive to heed those who have questioned his decision. Respect the Washington Supreme Court decision giving public defenders benefits like the prosecutors, but work with the County Council to maintain King County’s strong and effective public defender agencies. (end)

Donald Mukai is a former Area General Counsel for Verizon Wireless retiring after a 30-year career. He currently has a small law practice serving immigrant and elder clients.

Donald Mukai can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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