Saying they want a leader who understands Los Angeles County’s most vulnerable clients, hundreds of members of the Public Defender’s office and their supporters held a rally in downtown’s Grand Park Monday, to demand that the Board of Supervisors reverse its pick to head the oldest and largest agency of its kind in the nation.

Members of Lawyers of the Resistance held up signs that read “Clients First!” and called the appointment of Nicole Davis Tinkham as interim Public Defender unjust, because they say she has no experience in defending poor, needy clients.

Tinkham, a senior deputy county counsel in the county’s Government Services Division, has more than 14 years of legal experience and is known to have defended law enforcement staff accused of civil rights violations. She comes into a department that has had no permanent director for more than a year. Her appointment means she’ll serve for six months until a permanent replacement is found, county officials said.

Trial attorney Tiffiny Blacknell helped organize the rally, and said with more than 650 lawyers, the public defender’s office is the oldest and largest of its kind in the nation. Its employees want a leader who shares their goals to protect the marginalized as well as the strides made in criminal justice reform.

These are clients who are the “most under-served and misunderstood constituents” she and others said.

“We the lawyers who are resistant to this appointment are here today because we value a qualified leader who we believe our clients deserve, who we believe has their interest at heart, who is educated and knowledgeable  in criminal law and who will defend them in court,” she said.

Alameda County public defender Brendon Woods said at the rally that while he doesn’t know Tinkham and noted she may be caring and a good attorney in general, agreed with his Los Angeles County colleagues that she may not be the right fit for the clients in need of a public lawyers.

“She has no experience whatsoever in representing the poor clients of color,” said Woods, who is also the president of the California Public Defenders Association. “The decision by the Board of Supervisors shows no understanding of this job.”

Tinkham’s appointment was unanimously approved by the Board last month with no discussion, even after several public defenders presented a letter with 390 signatures from their office and voiced their concern about the potential for a conflict of interest because of Tinkham’s prior representation of the Sheriff’s Department.

Since then, a letter on Change.org on has grown to 1,465 signatures and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California also issued a statement after the Board’s vote, expressing concern.

“The right to an attorney in criminal court is a linchpin of our democracy, yet there is nothing in Tinkham’s history as a lawyer that demonstrates her suitability for this crucial post,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California in the statement. “Indeed, just the opposite in that she has represented the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department — the very entity that arrests a huge portion of the people who end up in criminal court and testifies against them.”

In response to the opposition, Tinkham released a statement Monday saying she respected the passion among members of the Public Defender’s office and she has begun to hold town hall meetings with employees to hear their concerns. She said she was appointed to examine internal systems in place, such as budgeting and staffing, to improve the department.

“I know that the staff of the Public Defender’s office cares deeply about its crucial mission of protecting the rights of the accused and ensuring a fair and equal justice system,” she said. “In the days and weeks ahead, I hope that these passionate public servants will come to see that I, too, am singularly committed to enhancing the office’s effectiveness so its clients can be even better served.

“Although I do not have a background in criminal law, I do bring with me a career of skills—including 15 years of employment law—that I know will help me confront a number of pressing managerial and workplace issues,” she added.

Public defender David Moore wore a T-shirt that read “Clients First” and also carried a sign that displayed dissatisfaction with the lack of promotions within his department. The Public Defender’s office is non-union.

“We can’t fill vacant positions, we can’t be promoted, and we’re all doing more and are underpaid for it,” he said. “We need someone who understands… who will put the client first.”

In a letter sent to the public defender’s office days before Tinkham was appointed, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she was confident in the Board’s choice.

“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,” Kuehl 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, and she has great respect for the dedication and hard work of PD attorneys and staff.”

A response by Kuehl to Monday’s rally was not immediately available.

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