Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office Has A New Interim Leader — And She’s Never Represented Indigent Clients
On Jan. 23, public defenders in Los Angeles County got a new interim boss — over their own objections. For one thing, many have argued, Nicole Davis Tinkham, the appointee, comes from the Office of the County Counsel, where she defended the Board of Supervisors (the same governing body that appointed her), and the Sheriff’s Department, a frequent foe of their clients. Perhaps even more importantly, they say, Tinkham has no experience with indigent criminal defense. For the next six months, she’ll lead the oldest and largest public defender’s office in the country, where 675 attorneys serve a county more populous than New York City.
The day the Board unanimously appointed Tinkham by a 5–0 vote, Robin Bernstein-Lev, a deputy public defender in LA County and 30-year veteran of the office, said she submitted a letter signed by hundreds of colleagues, demanding Tinkham not be given the role.
“An innate part of our responsibility is to distrust law enforcement,” Bernstein-Lev told The Appeal. “We have to have that perspective to be able to defend our clients. We can’t just accept what law enforcement presents to us. …. It’s our job to investigate around what they say. And she has no experience with that.”
Tinkham’s history with County Counsel, which represents the Board of Supervisors and other public agencies, and whose stated mission is to protect the county from “loss and risk,” also raises legal questions about her allegiance to low-income clients. She appears to have “dual loyalties,” the letter states. Especially since she has brought a team from County Counsel with her to the public defender’s office, and, according to the countywide communications office, plans to return to her Counsel post later this year.
“We are at the opposite end of litigation with County Counsel in a number of arenas,” explained Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Friedman. “If there is some tension in a particular case between our office and our clients [on one side] and County Counsel on the other side, it’s very unclear how that is going to play out.”
Public defenders say building trust with their clients is essential to their work, and they fear that could be compromised by Tinkham’s appointment. While employed by the firm Collins Collins Muir & Stewart LLP in 2013, Tinkham provided civil defense to Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Sorrow after he shot a 15-year-old, William Fetters, in the back in 2009. Sorrow had encountered Fetters holding a plastic toy gun and biking with friends in Palmdale. Fetters was awarded $1.1 million in that case.
Tinkham’s involvement in the Sorrow case and others in which she represented the Sheriff’s Office could make public defenders’ jobs more difficult, the attorneys say. “She doesn’t have to be directly interacting with clients for her presence to have an impact on our ability to gain our clients’ trust,” Bernstein-Lev predicted. “It’s very difficult for a person who is getting a lawyer for free to believe that they are getting quality representation. So we are already at a deficit.”
In a statement to The Appeal, Tinkham said she was entirely focused on her new role. “I will have no divided loyalty as I dedicate my time and energy to this interim position,” Tinkham said.
And in her first communication with staff, an email on January 24, Tinkham acknowledged her lack of experience. “Let me be direct: I need your help,” she wrote. “Your criminal expertise is absolutely essential to our office’s core mission. I am relying on you to further these efforts. But, as I hope you’ll soon see, I bring over 15 years of employment law experience that I think can help the office function more effectively, more transparently.”
“Many of you have certainly provided me with a challenging welcome,” she added. “But as you get to know me, you’ll learn that I love a good challenge.”
Tinkham is assuming the leadership role at the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office at a crucial moment, when experienced leadership at the office is desperately needed, public defenders told The Appeal. Their office hasn’t had a full-time leader since late 2016, when former Public Defender Ronald Brown retired. There’s currently a shortage of social workers to conduct client interviews that inform alternative sentencing requests, and a backlog of Proposition 47 relief cases, in which poor clients are looking to vacate old sentences to improve their job and housing prospects. And in a county with 10.2 million residents, 20 percent of whom are non-citizens, defense attorneys say their clients often have complex immigration needs, and that their office lacks the staff to adequately serve them.
“Having a strong chief of the office can be incredibly important to help reform an office,” said Andres Kwon, an attorney and Equal Justice Works Emerson Fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. It should be “someone who has been a public defender, because you cannot substitute that knowledge. You can’t learn theoretically. You learn representing the most vulnerable poor accused, day in and day out.”
But county officials have been steadfast in their support of Tinkham. County CEO Sachi Hamai wrote a formal recommendation for her, highlighting the Board of Supervisors’ priorities for the job, including “operational effectiveness” and “fiscal responsibility.” In a letter to the public defender’s staff, Board of Supervisors Chair Sheila Kuehl said that she believes Tinkham will bring “much-needed stability to the Public Defender’s Office during an uncertain time.”
A veteran employee of the office, who has met Tinkham multiple times since she assumed the post and asked that we withhold her name to avoid tension with her colleagues, said that some of the Board’s concerns about mismanagement are founded, even if appointing Tinkham was a serious misstep. “I think there’s a lot in our upper management structure that’s not effective,” the employee said, citing a lack of communication between the office’s four assistant public defenders. “I can hardly get an email responded to from our own HR department.”
Tinkham is “approachable, very bright, and seems committed to addressing the difficulties,” the person added, but the Board should have brought in a seasoned public defender alongside her: someone with experience to make final case decisions, and whose name would be on the letterhead.
“We could have her come in and do some oversight or whatever, but [having her] as the last person to answer for any of these clients or cases … I don’t know how that’s not problematic.”
While Tinkham was appointed to serve through June, some defense attorneys are still working to unseat her. Alisa Blair, deputy in charge of the Los Padrinos Juvenile Court and president of the Black Public Defenders Association, is part of the so-called Lawyers of the Resistance, a group of colleagues that launched an online petition for Tinkham’s removal, with 1,288 signatures as of this writing. “My issues are that it sets a very bad precedent and makes us seem unimportant — like the incorrigible bad children of the county — to say anyone can come in to clean things up,” Blair said. The group recently announced a rally in Grand Park in Los Angeles on February 12 to demand that Tinkham’s appointment be rescinded. They’ve made rubber “#notmyPD” bracelets.
Blair, who applied for Tinkham’s position earlier this month, shared a letter with The Appeal that her colleagues sent to grassroots allies, enlisting their support ahead of the rally. Tinkham “has never zealously advocated for an unmedicated mentally-ill individual in the throes of mental illness,” it states. “She has never held the hand of an undocumented client facing removal for a minor, victimless crime. She cannot understand the spirit and commitment necessary to ‘suit up and show up’ every day on behalf of Los Angeles County’s most underserved and misunderstood constituents.”
Veteran San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi is the only public defender in California elected by the voting public, which he considers important to his independence. When a Board of Supervisors makes the selection, he said, “the office-holder is beholden to the Board of Supervisors.”
Experience in criminal defense is important too, he said. Before being elected, he served as an attorney in the office he now runs for 15 years. “You have to weigh in constantly in this day and age,” Adachi said. “You need someone who understands bail reform, sentencing reform, and is committed to reducing mass incarceration. To bring in someone who doesn’t have experience in that area but has also actively defended law enforcement against police misconduct would be unthinkable here.”
“Right now is a critical time, because Los Angeles is the biggest county in the state, and criminal justice reform is being debated every day, both in the grassroots and the capital,” he added, citing the bail reform and anti-mass incarceration movements. “Having a knowledgeable person who understands these issues from LA would be huge.”