Kern County Public Defender Peter Kang embodies public service, compassion

·5 min read

Dec. 19—Peter Kang, 50, references the files heaped all over his desk, scattered on the floor and precipitously stacked atop a side desk.

"All these files are human beings," said Kang, whose first official day in his new role is Monday. "Within these cases, there are incredible, important experiences regardless of the outcome."

This type of attitude demonstrates the compassion Kang brings to the job as the newly appointed Kern County public defender, according to his colleagues, which is seen in how he handles everything from office administration to representing clients.

Creating social change first attracted him during his undergraduate years as an ethnic studies major at the University of California, Berkeley, he said in a recent interview with The Californian. While participating in protests, he sought another avenue to advocate for the neglected.

He secured an internship at the San Francisco public defender's office during his second year at UC Hastings College of Law and saw firsthand how lawyers champion equal rights.

"I realized that law was the vehicle to raise the expectations ... of what justice demands," Kang said. "There's no better vehicle than being a lawyer, in my opinion."

After graduating law school, Kang adjudicated legal matters for five years in the United States Air Force, eventually becoming a chief of military justice.

He began looking for public defender positions, applied to a spot within Bakersfield in 2002 and never left. In the back of Kang's mind, he always aimed to represent those who couldn't retain attorneys.

Kang said his practice of law has been guided by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright — a ruling that upheld the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of counsel as a fundamental right essential to a fair trial and, as such, applies to states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, according to UScourts.gov. It also found the state must appoint attorneys for low-income defendants.

"What kind of attorneys do poor people deserve? The same kind that people of means can hire," said Kang, adding, "the public defender is the vehicle to secure that justice and elevate justice for (the) poor."

Kang lives and breathes for his work on behalf of his clients, according to former Kern County Public Defender Pam Singh, who stepped down Friday and added she was "absolutely thrilled" at his appointment.

Singh worked alongside Kang during his role as chief assistant public defender, essentially her No. 2 within the office. He was the first minority selected as a member of the senior management team within the Kern County public defender office's history.

"He's a person of great integrity," Singh said, who will continue to serve as a deputy public defender. "He has all of the characteristics you would want in a leader."

Chief Deputy Public Defender Tanya Richard said Kang's attitude toward his work emerges while defending his client. When speaking to the jury, Kang rarely steps into "the well," or the middle of a courtroom, she added. Typically, an attorney argues from the middle, ensuring everyone gazes upon them.

Kang chooses to stand near his client.

"It's a very telling attribute ... (of a) type of person who effectively represents the client," Richard said of the new public defender's courtroom manner.

The almost 22-year veteran public defender distinguishes himself with his modest and soft-spoken persona, Richard added. His effectiveness stems from passion and compassion, she added, not a boisterous personality.

Nothing is more sacred to Kang than the attorney-client relationship. He doesn't divulge those details even to his wife and family, he said.

Singh said Kang, a mentor to herself and many within the office, was one of the few to try a death penalty case. Only the most skilled lawyers are selected to oversee such matters, she added. Richard added he has won multiple murder cases, a true feat within their office.

"That makes him a very significant force, just intellectually," Singh said.

Singh added Kang started at the bottom of the office as a misdemeanor attorney and worked his way up. By virtue of holding every role in the office and his experience in Bakersfield, Kang will be an effective leader, she said.

Kang plans to continue retaining his own clients, while managing the office's administrative matters and the roughly 35,000 cases it receives annually. This choice is a rarity among public defenders throughout California.

The importance of hard work was ingrained into him by his parents, who immigrated from Korea to California around the mid-1970s, he said. His father earned an MBA at a major university in Korea, but couldn't find work when he first came to the United States. As new immigrants, Kang's father had to work as a pineapple cutter and his mother canned tuna in a factory.

Kang added his parents also instilled in him the value of education and not taking anything for granted.

The new public defender plans to pursue grants for his office and increase the services of the Clean Slate program, which allows people with a criminal history to expunge their records. He also aims to balance the workload of his own people and to protect them from a criminal justice system that often overlooks their clients.

"We should be caring for people and we should be reminding the system of the humanity of those left behind," Kang said.

You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @idesai98 on Twitter.

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