Written by The Business Journal Staff
Kenneth K. Taniguchi
Fresno County Bar Association
What We Do: Every person charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment has a Constitutional right to an attorney if they cannot afford to hire one. There are also other instances where a State Statute may provide for court appointed counsel as well. Public defenders are the primary attorneys appointed by the court where a right to counsel exists.
Education: Bachelor of Science in wildlife & fisheries biology from UC Davis and a Juris Doctorate from Southwestern University School of Law
Also attended Crawford Nautical School and hold a Near Coastal Masters License from the US Coast Guard
What made you want to be an attorney, Kenneth?
Members of my family were unjustly incarcerated in U.S. concentration camps during WWII just because they were of Japanese ancestry. The rights and laws of our country need to be upheld and protected or they can be subverted.
How did you become the Fresno County Public Defender, Kenneth?
I was appointed by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors in 2007 after having been a defense attorney with the office for 25 years.
What do you enjoy most about your job, Kenneth?
Finding solutions to assure that our court and justice system provide both justice and efficiency.
What are the biggest challenges, Kenneth?
Educating the public that our Constitutional rights and American values should not be degraded in tough economic times due to their cost, and money should not be compromised when lives have been given to uphold these values. Also, the recent enactment of AB 109, which is a change in thinking for our justice system, has created a need to provide additional information to the court to assist our clients.
How has the legal profession changed since you joined the Fresno County Public Defender’s office in 1982, Kenneth?
Other than the technology, which has changed all our lives, the recent enactment of AB 109 has finally started the change away from what has proven to be a faulty belief that incarceration alone will reduce crime. The criminal justice system now has the data to show that resources need to be spent on correctly targeting the factors that place people at risk to offend. Developing the services to address this evidence-based need is a new function for all those involved in public safety.
We’re seeing some of the most severe cuts to the California court system ever. How is that affecting the public defender’s office, Kenneth?
The cut to the court has in a sense mirrored our own. We have fallen from 81 fulltime attorneys in 2007 to 54 now. In a county as large as ours, it has been extremely difficult to provide services. Although the closure of the outlying courts has greatly inconvenienced the people living outside of the metropolitan area, it has at least allowed us to centralize our services downtown.
In that vein, what are some ways that the Public Defender’s office is working to become more efficient, Kenneth?
Technology has allowed us to work with computers directly in the courtrooms. Computers provide us ready information on the law, our internal database and research. The outlying courts did not provide us with that computer access, but we are now able to handle all cases the same using the downtown courtrooms.
What is the Fresno County Bar’s attorney referral service and how has that helped, Kenneth?
The Fresno County Bar Association provides a low-cost means for an individual to seek initial assistance in all matters of a legal nature. Local attorneys register with the Bar Association and agree to an initial fixed consultation fee, which can later be negotiated if that attorney is later retained. Two years ago the Public Defender’s Office was cut too severely and there were insufficient attorneys to handle all the work. The Bar referral service was able to provide a list of competent attorneys to be appointed on those cases. This ready pool assured virtually no delays to the cases. Unfortunately, the County was still obligated to pay for these private appointed attorneys. Since then, the County has restored funding to provide enough attorneys in the Public Defender’s office to avoid this problem.
As president of the Fresno County Bar Association, what reasons would you give to encourage attorneys to join the Bar, Kenneth?
I joined the Bar Association at an early stage in my profession as a means to have contact with other attorneys who were not necessarily practicing in the same field as mine. I believe all attorneys have common issues that we deal with and the social interaction provides an opportunity to advance the legal profession for all of us. I believe to better promote the integrity, civility and diversity of our profession it is important for all attorneys to join and support one key organization that encompasses all. This provides a unified voice for key issues such as the cut in funding to our courts. Courts are the forum that we all practice in and cutting access to courts impacts our ability to do our job and assure justice for all.
What are your roots in the San Joaquin Valley, Kenneth?
I was born in Fresno. My parents had a small mom and pop grocery store in West Fresno. Later, they joined with my grandparents and uncle to operate Boys Market, which was just off Highway 99 at Stanislaus. I attended Roeding Elementary School, Cooper Junior High and graduated from Fresno High. My lifelong friends attended the same schools and we were all boy scouts in the same troop.
What do you do in your spare time, Kenneth?
Besides being the President of the Fresno County Bar Association, I am the co-chair with the Fresno-Kochi Japan sister-cities program, which cuts into my spare time. I have season theatre tickets in San Francisco. I am an avid fresh and saltwater fisherman. I play senior softball and manage three softball teams, and am a diehard Dodgers fan.