LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County public defenders representing a majority of their colleagues failed Tuesday in a bid to derail the appointment of an interim leader by the Board of Supervisors.
The board unanimously approved the appointment of Nicole Tinkham as interim public defender, despite a letter signed by 390 of the office’s roughly 700 attorneys who raised concerns about her lack of experience and the potential for a conflict of interest, given Tinkham’s prior representation of the Sheriff’s Department.
“Ms. Tinkham has no criminal defense experience. More troubling, it appears that Ms. Tinkham has no experience managing a large-scale metropolitan legal office, no experience supervising attorneys handling criminal cases, no record of validated commitment to social justice,” the letter states, before going on to list even more issues.
Tinkham, who is senior deputy county counsel in the Government Services Division, has more than 14 years of legal experience and was previously a partner in private practice with Collins Collins Muir + Stewart LLP, where she worked from 2003-12, according to board documents.
Tinkham replaces Kenneth Clayman, former Ventura County public defender, who filled the interim post from July to January, as the board continues to seek a permanent hire to replace longtime Public Defender Ronald L. Brown, who resigned at the end of 2016.
Her temporary appointment takes effect immediately and is expected to last six months, according to a letter to the Public Defender’s Office from Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who chairs the board.
“Nicole is an outstanding attorney, leader and manager and I am confident that she can help bring much-needed stability to the Public Defender’s office during this uncertain time,” Kuuehl wrote. “She has a deep appreciation for the role the PD’s office plays in safeguarding the rights of the accused and ensuring a fair and equal justice system.”
Deputy Public Defender Nan Whitfield, who has 30 years of experience as a defense attorney, was among those who strongly disagreed and urged the board to reconsider its decision.
Tinkham is “a lawyer who has never set foot into a criminal courtroom to represent an indigent client,” Whitfield said. “I feel like you are making a mockery of my life’s work … clearly somebody failed to think this through.”
Even though it is a temporary appointment, other public defenders said there were too many important issues at stake to put a non-public defender in this critical role.
Deputy Public Defender Evan Langinger, who is also the president of the Latino Public Defenders’ Association, pointing to stepped up immigration enforcement.
“Minor criminal convictions are rendering people deportable,” Langinger said. “What we need is a public defender who, number one, isn’t interim, because this problem is pressing … 7-Elevens are being swept and that’s fracturing our communities.”
Kuehl said in her letter to the agency that the board was committed to finding the right permanent hire.
“We are determined to identify an individual to head the office who has the skills and vision to lead the country’s largest and preeminent Public Defender’s Office,” Kuehl wrote. “That determination is a testament to our deep regard for your work.”
Deputy Public Defender Elizabeth Lashley-Haynes contended that Tinkham’s work on behalf of the Sheriff’s Department would undermine clients’ trust.
Tinkham represented “the very agency in the very office of the Sheriff’s Department who mistreats, abuses, prejudices (my clients) and harms them,” Lashley-Haynes said. “My clients deserve better.”
The 390-signature letter to the board was also endorsed by the associations that represent black, Latino, Asian-American and women public defenders. Deputy Public Defender Natasha Khamashta said many others didn’t get a chance to sign by the deadline.
Khamashta and others told the board they would be unable to rely on Tinkham for guidance.
“We’re not here to school her,” Khamashta said. “Give us somebody that’s qualified and competent to represent our office.”
Others said they wouldn’t acknowledge Tinkham in motions they file or follow any guidelines she sets, given her lack of experience.
County Counsel Mary Wickham said in a statement issued after the board vote that Tinkham has what it takes to do the job.
“Ms. Tinkham has proven herself to be a thoughtful, passionate and incisive leader. Although she does not have a criminal law background, we believe that her extraordinary skills are ideally suited to achieve success in this new assignment,” Wickham said, pointing out that attorneys and judges often transfer to new assignments. “Ms. Tinkham is committed to supporting and guiding the Public Defender attorneys and staff in fulfilling their crucial duty to safeguard the rights of the accused in Los Angeles County.”