The Orange County Grand Jury recommended Wednesday that the county public defender be appointed by the Board of Supervisors to a specified term of up to four years to insulate the defender from possible political pressure.
The job is now a civil service position, which means that the person who holds it can be ousted only for "reasonable cause" by a majority vote of the five supervisors.
Two years ago the county switched almost all of its appointed agency and department heads to "at will" status, making it easier to get rid of them. In exchange, the department heads were given large raises.
But Public Defender Ron Butler turned down the switch, saying it could jeopardize his independence. The county, which had offered him a 12%raise if he switched to "at will," then held his raise to 4%.
The public defender and his deputies, who are paid by the county, represent defendants in criminal cases who are too poor to pay for private lawyers.
Because of that, public defenders "can be vulnerable to criticism by county boards of supervisors who may not approve of spending public funds in the defense of unpopular defendants," the grand jury said.
Butler said two years ago that a public defender subject to quick dismissal by supervisors could face situations in which it was in his personal interest to please the supervisors by holding costs down at the same time that the "best interests of his client" required a different course of action.
The grand jury noted that the district attorney is elected to four-year terms and that the county counsel is appointed by the supervisors for four years.
The public defender should be hired for a specific term not to exceed four years, with the possibility of reappointment, the grand jury said. The panel noted that, under current rules, Butler's eventual replacement will be hired for an "at will" position. It said that should be changed.
The grand jury also said that Butler, now paid $75,212 a year, should be given more money to make up for the lesser raise he received when he declined to become an "at will" employee.
Butler reportedly was on vacation Wednesday and unavailable for comment.