San Diego County's new community defender organization, searching for a painless means of starting operations, wants to take over Defenders Inc., the long-established defense group that has survived repeated overhauls of the county's indigent defense system.
Meeting for the first time Thursday, the board of the new organization--which as yet has no formal name--agreed to send emissaries to the Defenders Inc. board to discuss a friendly takeover. The panel also laid plans for beginning the search for an executive director to run a reconstituted indigent defense program.
The meeting was the first concrete step toward implementing the defense overhaul recommended earlier this year by a blue-ribbon panel of legal experts. The panel urged the county Board of Supervisors to abandon its widely criticized hybrid system of using private lawyers and a handful of public defenders to represent accused criminals who cannot afford to hire attorneys.
Supervisors have given conceptual approval to the experts' proposal for a nonprofit law office--the community defender organization--to take over the job of representing more than 30,000 indigent defendants yearly. They have begun appointing members to the organization's board, as has the San Diego County Bar Assn.
But it has been unclear how the organization would go about constituting itself into an entity formal enough to contract with the county to do the job, estimated to cost upwards of $15 million per year.
The likely answer emerged at Thursday's meeting, when board member E. Miles Harvey proposed that the county organization take over Defenders Inc., changing its name but retaining its corporate structure and offices.
Defenders Inc., established by the county bar association in 1968, has grown and shrunk in prominence during the county's dalliances with a variety of systems for providing indigent defense. It is the largest county indigent defense contractor, providing representation in courts in San Diego, El Cajon and Chula Vista.
Harvey argued that it would be easier to subsume an existing group than to try to create a new bureaucracy from scratch.
"It makes a very easy phase-in, a very easy transition, rather than something that is totally abrupt," he said.
Attorney Tom Ryan, president of Defenders Inc., said Thursday he saw no "insurmountable" issues that would stand in the way of a takeover of Defenders by the new organization. Defenders already has appointed a committee to negotiate with the community defender organization on details of a transition, he said.
"There's been a realization by Defenders that once the community defender organization came into existence, that we in essence would be out of existence," Ryan said. "We've also taken a position some time ago that we were in favor of the community defender, and therefore we will attempt to make the transition as smooth as possible."
Alex Landon, executive director of Defenders Inc., said it would be impossible for the group to respond to the county organization's advances until Harvey and his board have spelled out its objectives in detail.
Landon declined, too, to confirm Harvey's statement that he would be a candidate for the executive director's job in the new organization--a post that will be the most powerful, best-budgeted job ever created for a community defense attorney in San Diego.
Many lawyers have suspected that the blue-ribbon panel's recommendations would end up strengthening Defenders Inc. at the expense of the county's small public defender office, the group of in-house lawyers that will be disbanded under the new defense system.
However, the new organization's board reaffirmed Thursday its intent to hire virtually all the lawyers employed by both existing offices who wish to continue defending indigents.