Nov. 2 2011 02:21 PM

Public Defender Henry Coker's support for Bonnie Dumanis could be problematic

Henry Coker

San Diego County Public Defender Henry Coker has endorsed the county's top prosecutor, District attorney Bonnie Dumanis, in her bid for San Diego mayor.

If that relationship makes you uneasy, you're not alone. Throughout the country, public defenders are either prohibited from using their public office to endorse political candidates or they voluntarily refrain, as a matter of principle, from endorsing elected judicial officers, including judges and prosecutors. That's just not the case in San Diego County.

Coker did not respond to CityBeat's request for an interview, but the move is not out of character for the career public defender. In 2010, he joined Dumanis in campaigning for the reelection of four judges, including Deann Salcido, who later resigned after being formally censured for using her courtroom to audition for a reality-TV show. In endorsing Dumanis, he called the Republican “solution oriented,” pointing specifically to progress she's made in information technology. If Dumanis loses the race, she will remain the district attorney and can run for reelection in 2014.

Federal-defender employees are barred from using their official titles in political activities under their code of conduct. The state of New Jersey has similar rules that prohibit officers and employees from engaging in political activity that “in any way relies upon” their official positions. Howard Finkelstein, the district attorney for Broward County, Fla., has a policy not to endorse in judicial or prosecutorial races, though he is not limited by any formal rules.

“It just seems smarmy and like good-ol'-boy politics,” Finkelstein tells City- Beat regarding public defenders who endorse prosecutors. “Whether I like our state attorney or not, I don't think it is appropriate.”

In some cases, Finkelstein says, a public defender could put his clients at risk of retaliation if he were to endorse the district attorney's opponent.

Endorsements involving judicial officers have kicked off controversy. In 1999, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, San Francisco's public defender withdrew his reelection endorsement of the district attorney after the candidate allegedly attempted to pump him for information about his opponent for a hit piece. Also in the late 1990s, public defenders in Ventura County filed a complaint about a group of judges who endorsed a district attorney for a judicial seat, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But Finkelstein says that another reason to avoid endorsements is the impression it would leave with indigent defendants.

“If I do endorse [the prosecutor], how do I explain to my thousands of clients in jail that the state attorney that wants to put them away for decades and decades is someone I'm endorsing?” Finkelstein says. “It's unseemly and it doesn't seem right that I would stand shoulder-by-shoulder with someone trying to destroy my clients' lives.”

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