Columbia County Commissioners Office

The Columbia County Board of Commissioners office in Dayton. The county and Dayton and Starbuck officials collaborated on individual comprehensive plans that recently received an American Planning Association award.

The Columbia County board of commissioners is seeking an attorney to handle half of the county’s indigent defense work for the remainder of 2020.

County Prosecutor C. Dale Slack was in attendance at the board’s Monday meeting to discuss the need for a contract with a new lawyer.

The lawyer would pick up defense work for defendants who cannot afford an attorney. The work is much like that of a public defender.

“Most small counties can’t afford to fund an entire office of public defense through the county, so we contract with private attorneys to fill the role of public defender,” Slack said in an email after the meeting.

Columbia County splits the work between two lawyers. Half is handled by Walla Walla attorney Rachel Cortez. Waitsburg attorney Julie Karl handled the other half, but decided to end her contract early.

Slack told the board if someone isn’t hired in the next few weeks, the contract should be examined for ways to make it more attractive.

District Court Judge Scott Marinella, a candidate for Columbia County Superior Court judge, said the board has to be aware of the scope of the indigent defense position in a small county.

“We need to look at the fact that our defense attorneys don’t just deal with court,” Marinella said. “They deal with social workers, they deal with the Department of Licensing a lot on behalf of their clients, which is above and beyond what a contracted attorney would typically do. They also deal with treatment. They do a lot.”

Slack agreed.

“Since we are in a smaller community with fewer social services — and we all see this, Scott sees it, I see it, the police see it and the defense attorneys see it — we all have to fill a lot of the gaps that we don’t have specific services for,” Slack said.

The board agreed the position should be advertised for the next three weeks. In this time, Slack said he can reach out to people to find ways to make the contract more attractive if needed. The board will meet again on this issue if someone is not found in the next three weeks.

Jeremy Burnham can be reached at or 509-551-8896.


Jeremy Burnham covers education and Columbia County for the Union-Bulletin. He is a recent graduate of Eastern Washington University, where he studied journalism, and is an Eastern Eagle fanatic.