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Orange County

County's Interim Public Defender, a Department Veteran, Gets the Job

August 28, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Board of Supervisors ended an eight-month search for the county's next public defender Wednesday by promoting a veteran from department ranks. Debbie Kwast, who joined the public defender's office out of law school 25 years ago, has served as interim public defender since January, at a salary of $168,000 a year, which will now be renegotiated. She will oversee nearly 200 attorneys and a budget of $44 million.

The public defender's office represents criminal defendants in the county who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys -- a mission that Kwast said she has always found appealing.

"I believe in the work we do. We are an integral part of the criminal-justice system," Kwast said, shortly after learning of her appointment from Tom Wilson, chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

Kwast, 51, replaces Carl Holmes, who retired in January. She was one of six finalists, including two colleagues. Kwast said she expects a smooth transition.

"The client always comes first," she said. "Every candidate was committed to the client and committed to the office."

The board's decision to hire Kwast follows eight months of tension and uncertainty in the public defender's office, some attorneys said.

"It's been nerve-racking not to know what the future of the office was going to be," said Assistant Public Defender Denise Gragg, who favored the selection of Kwast.

"For all of us who work here, this is more than just who's going to be paying us," Gragg said. "This is the future of indigent defense in the county, and that was something we all had a stake in."

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