MLT City Council approves new public defender contract aimed at addressing Supreme Court ruling

By Doug Petrowski

The Mountlake Terrace City Council approved a new public defender contract this week that will cost the city an additional $105,000 per year over its previous contract. City officials cite a recent Washington State Supreme Court ruling and legal action against other jurisdictions for the need to expand the contract with law firm Feldman & Lee.

The new contract will cover public defenders assigned to cases prosecuted by the city beginning July 1. The current contract was set to expire at the end of this month.

Historically the city has averaged about 500 charges that become assigned to public defenders per year and has utilized the services of one public defender to handle the caseload. But last year the Washington State Supreme Court adopted a rule that requires public defenders to limit the number of cases they handle each year to 400. With the new court ruling, the City of Mountlake Terrace is required to increase the level of services it uses.

City officials say the increase of the annual contract with Feldman & Lee to $180,000 per year from the previous $75,000 annually will “cover overhead and the addition of one half-time attorney to handle Mountlake Terrace public defender cases.”

Law firms are also feeling the effect of the court’s new rule as individual attorneys are limited to the number of cases they can take on in a public defender’s role. Attorneys are hiking their rates in order to bring in the same annual income from the fewer number of cases they are allowed to defend, city officials stated.

Mountlake Terrace councilmembers expressed some frustration with the need to increase the contract for public defender services, but saw no other means to address the new court rules. “This is an unfortunate, unfunded state mandate that is one-sided,” said Councilmember Doug McCardle. “They’re only focusing on the public defenders ability to do their job and not really looking at how it would play out at the local level. So here we are stuck with an extra $105,000 per year that we have to cover.”

Grant County and the Cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington have already faced class-action lawsuits accusing those jurisdictions of not providing adequate counsel to defendants due to the caseload of their public defenders. Mountlake Terrace city officials hope their new contract shows a “reasonableness standard” for its public defender abilities.

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