More than a dozen Los Angeles County deputy public defenders went to the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday in a continuing protest against the woman temporarily leading their office.
Nicole Tinkham was appointed interim public defender in January, despite concerns raised by a majority of the department’s lawyers about her lack of experience as a criminal defense attorney and her commitment to social justice.
Tinkham, who was senior deputy county counsel in the Government Services Division, has more than 14 years of legal experience and was a partner in private practice with Collins Collins Muir + Stewart LLP from 2003-12, according to board documents.
However, deputy public defenders say the job of running what one called “the people’s law office” requires more than knowledge of the law and strong management skills. It demands someone passionate about criminal defense and understands the struggle involved in representing some of the county’s most vulnerable residents in what can be life or death matters.
“This is a calling,” Akio Katano said. “To be a public defender and to stand up for the rights of those who have no one else to stand behind them, who have no resources to fight on their own is a powerful, a constitutionally-mandated need.”
Deputy Public Defender Amanda Gamer, who has defended indigent clients for 13 years, told the board, “We are asking that you would appoint somebody who represents our passions and our clients, not your agenda.”
When it appointed Tinkham, the board indicated that she would serve for about six months as it continued to search for a permanent hire to run the office of roughly 700 attorneys. The last permanent appointee was longtime Public Defender Ronald L. Brown, who resigned at the end of 2016.
A county spokesman said the board remains determined to find the right person for the job.
“The board is committed to hiring a dynamic public defender who will excel at leading the department in its constitutionally essential mission of protecting the rights of its clients,” Joel Sappell said. “But beyond that, the county does not comment on ongoing personnel searches.”
At the time of Tinkham’s appointment, County Counsel Mary Wickham called her “a thoughtful, passionate and incisive leader” and expressed confidence in Tinkham’s ability to do the job.
Tinkham, in a statement issued following her appointment, expressed hope that as attorneys in the office got to know her, that they would see that she is also “singularly committed to enhancing the office’s effectiveness so its clients can be even better served.”
However, employee town halls and other interactions have not seemed to turn the tide, with one deputy public defender telling the board that morale in the department was at an all-time low.
Deputy public defenders, who have led protests and conducted news conferences to express their dismay, said they will continue to actively resist the appointment of anyone without criminal defense experience.