A veteran San Diego trial attorney has been chosen to lead the Los Angeles County public defender’s office, the largest and oldest in the country with about 700 attorneys who defend indigent clients who could not otherwise afford legal representation.
Ricardo Garcia’s salary and start date are expected to be determined by the Board of Supervisors at its Sept. 4 meeting.
“The importance of the public defender position cuts across all communities, and … provides legal representation — a constitutional right — to those who cannot afford it,” county Supervisor Hilda Solis said. “Ricardo Garcia is a highly qualified attorney and, as the first Latino to head a major L.A. County department, I look forward to watching Ricardo take the public defender’s office to the next level.”
Garcia since 2009 has been a supervising attorney in San Diego County public defender’s office, where he has worked since 1995 with the exception of 2004-06, when he served as the criminal justice director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. In that role, he was responsible for monitoring the consent decree with the Los Angeles Police Department as well as conditions within the Los Angeles County jails.
In more than two decades as a public defender in San Diego County, most recently as supervising attorney of the Multiple Conflicts Office/Major Cases, he has litigated serious and violent felonies, including death penalty cases.
When he’s not in a courtroom, Garcia is often in a classroom. He is as an adjunct professor of Criminal Procedure & Motions Practice at California Western School of Law, a faculty member at the Shechmeister Death Penalty College at Santa Clara University and lectures on litigating complex gang cases in the continuing legal education programs of the California Public Defenders Association.
He also teaches Spanish-language trial skills to graduate student lawyers.
Garcia, who was named Trial Lawyer of the Year by the San Diego Criminal Defense Bar Association in 2015, is a graduate of the Boalt Hall School of Law, now known as Berkeley Law.
The last permanent appointee in Los Angeles County was longtime Public Defender Ronald L. Brown, who resigned at the end of 2016.
Nicole Tinkham, who was senior deputy county counsel in the Government Services Division, 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.
Deputy public defenders were vocal in their criticism, saying the job of running what one called “the people’s law office” requires more than knowledge of the law and strong management skills. They said 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.
Employee town halls and other interactions did not seem to turn the tide, with one of the office’s lawyers telling the Board of Supervisors in May that morale in the department was at an all-time low.
Supervisor Janice Hahn said Garcia “is the right person for the job.”
“Our public defenders work very hard every day to give the best possible legal defense, and in Ricardo Garcia they will have a leader at the helm who embodies their spirit and commitment to justice,” she said.
Board of Supervisors Chair Sheila Kuehl agreed.
“There are few county services as critical to their recipients as those provided by the superb staff of the Office of the Public Defender,” she said. “Their quality and dedication demand a leader who understands the challenges they face, who has walked their walk, and has fully demonstrated the professional capabilities and leadership capacity necessary to help them realize their full potential as protectors of the legal interests and general well-being of their clients. The board is delighted to have recruited one of the very best to this noble cause.”
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