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Head of Alaska’s Public Defender Agency will resign

Alaska's top public defender, Quinlan Steiner, poses for a photo outside the Dimond Courthouse in downtown Juneau on Thursday, March 1, 2018. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

JUNEAU — Quinlan Steiner, Alaska’s top public defender, will resign as soon as the state’s nonpartisan judicial council names a replacement, he confirmed Tuesday afternoon.

His resignation letter, dated Tuesday, did not give a reason for his departure. In an email to the Daily News, he said, “I have been honored with the opportunity to serve the people of the state of Alaska in my capacity as public defender, but I believe now is the right time for new leadership to move the agency forward and help address the challenges and opportunities we are facing as a state."

Steiner, who has defended poor Alaskans in court for more than two decades, was appointed to head the Public Defender Agency by Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2005 and was reconfirmed by governors Palin, Parnell and Walker and several state legislators.

According to his resume, Steiner graduated from West Anchorage High School in 1984, Seattle University in 1989 and the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis and Clark College in 1998. After graduation, he became an assistant public defender and has worked for the Public Defender Agency since.

Part of the Alaska Department of Administration, the Public Defender Agency is in charge of defending Alaskans in court if they cannot afford to hire an attorney themselves. It’s a constitutionally required responsibility by the state, but Steiner warned last year that state budget cuts were endangering the agency’s ability to fulfill that constitutional obligation.

Last month, Steiner became involved in a dispute between the governor’s office and the Alaska Legislature when the governor’s chief of staff denied permission for Steiner to testify in person during a legislative hearing.

According to state law, a new public defender is chosen after a selection process run by the nonpartisan Alaska Judicial Council. The council selects at least two nominees from a pool of interested applicants, then forwards their names to the governor, who picks his or her choice. That choice is subject to approval by the Alaska Legislature.

The public defender serves a term of four years, and then the governor can decide whether to reappoint that person or seek a new series of nominees from the judicial council. If the governor reappoints the public defender, she or he must be approved by the Legislature again.

Susanne DiPietro, executive director of the judicial council, said she needs to talk to council members before determining how long the nomination process is likely to take, but as an off-the-cuff guess, she said it might take until August or so.

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