Contra Costa County didn’t have to look far to find its new public defender. Ellen McDonnell had served in the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office for two decades before the County Board of Supervisors voted to appoint her as its Chief Public Defender at its meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 14. McDonnell succeeds Robin Lipetsky, who in 2010 became the first woman to serve as the County’s chief public defender and who recently retired.
McDonnell has been serving as interim public defender since, and her performance thus far is one in a number of reasons she was chosen for the top role even after an extensive search process, County Administrator Monica Nino said.
“I am recommending Ms. McDonnell as a result of her experience of 20 years in the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office along with the time she’s demonstrated the last four months as she has performed the function as the interim public defender,” Nino said. “During those last four months, she has led her organization through mandatory vaccination requirements that this board took action on.” Nino added that McDonnell has recently enhanced efficiencies in the office by using outside counsel in periods where there are case overloads.
But McDonnell has reportedly exhibited successful leadership within the Public Defender’s Office for years prior to her appointment. According to colleagues, she has specialized over two decades in representing clients in serious felony cases and is “a skilled trial attorney and fierce advocate, especially for those suffering from mental health conditions.” She’s also been the public face of the office, not just in the courts but in the community. She “led a dramatic expansion in innovative and holistic defense programs,” her colleagues said. In her previous role as chief assistant, she managed the Contra Costa Public Defender’s operations and oversaw the office’s divisions. In 2014, McDonnell led expansion of the Public Defender’s Clean Slate program, and spearheaded community outreach efforts in response to Proposition 47, the state law that re-categorized some nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies. McDonnell “coordinated and led numerous Clean Slate Day community events, and collaborated with community-based organizations to assist thousands of community members in clearing their records and providing a path to rehabilitation,” her office stated.
In 2016, McDonnell became the supervisor for reentry programs and secured philanthropic and government funding for those services. She also launched the award-winning Early Representation Program dedicated to preventing failures to appear in court and diverting cases from the criminal justice system. McDonnell further secured funding to launch the Holistic Intervention Partnership, “a collaborative public-private partnership which offers intensive case management, funding for housing services, and other critical resources to those impacted by our criminal legal system,” according to the Public Defender’s Office.
“Ellen has been at the forefront of implementing legislated criminal justice reforms in the Contra Costa legal system, including Prop 47, Prop 64, Felony Murder Reform, and Bail Reform,” colleagues said, adding, “Through Ellen’s leadership, Contra Costa County has seen a reduction of incarceration rates, improved sentence equity, the minimization of court-imposed debt, and the elimination of barriers for impacted people.”
McDonnell received her Juris Doctorate from UC Hastings College of Law. She is a resident of Walnut Creek, where she lives with her husband and two children and speaks fluent Spanish.