Colleagues recall Don Madsen, a beloved leader in public defense

Some called him a father figure. Several said he was the best supervisor they ever had. Many said his skill as an attorney and his deep commitment to his clients made him the embodiment of public defense – a natural-born leader who loved the work and the people who were drawn to it.

Don Madsen, at his office in the Prefontaine Building when he headed the Associated Counsel for the Accused.

On June 30, Don Madsen, who joined the Associated Counsel for the Accused in 1979 and was its director for seven years until his retirement in 2015, died of complications from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 68.

In interviews with current and former employees, some of whom teared up while talking, they described a man who was both genial and witty, generous and wise – an Abe Lincoln of a lawyer who was 6’7” and smoked a corncob pipe.

He loved golf. He took a keen interest in people’s children. If a parent were ailing, he asked after them. His office door was always open – literally and metaphorically.

“He loved the work. And he was a great supervisor,” said Cindy Arends Elsberry, felony and resentencing resource attorney at Washington Defender Association, who worked as a felony attorney at ACA for several years. “He was supportive, caring, and always able to listen and brainstorm.”

Scott Saeda, a felony attorney at ACA, said that when he came to work at ACA in 1989, there were certain people who were considered the “gods of the office,” and Don was one of them. “But when you met him, he didn’t come off that way at all. He was down to earth and nice, and he put people at ease. I used to say he was the perfect politician. Within five minutes of talking to him, you’d feel like you were the most important person in the world.”

Don was the fourth person to helm ACA, now a division within the King County Department of Public Defense. He was hired as a freshly minted attorney by the agency’s legendary founder, Irving Paul, who said Don’s experience as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman – his job one summer during law school – meant he’d probably be good before a jury.

Irving Paul was right. Several colleagues said Don was a masterful lawyer, in part because of his relaxed manner in the courtroom. “He didn’t act like he was a lawyer. He acted like he was your best friend,” Scott Saeda said. “What made him a great lawyer is that you didn’t know you were being lawyered.”

Lou Frantz, who worked with Don for 30 years and is now a member of the Public Defense Advisory Board, said Don’s style – disarming, non-confrontational, at times humorous – worked well in the courtroom, as did his ability to lean in when needed. But he said it was Don’s deep commitment to clients that also stands out. “He loved the technical aspect of the practice of the law,” he said. “But he was always concerned about the client. He wanted us always to treat our clients well.”

In 2013, Don’s decades as both a frontline public defender and a leader in public defense were recognized when WSBA awarded him its Lifetime Service Award, one of its highest honors. A video created for the event includes footage of Don talking in his no-nonsense style about why he became a public defender: “I’ve always had a desire to help out others and to help people in trouble and to help the underdog,” he said. Clients have very little power, he added. “That’s what motivates me.”

Stories about Don abound. People at ACA recall playing golf with him in the office hallways, his irreverent sense of humor, his love of good bourbon, and his willingness to go the extra mile to support the office – like the time he stayed late during one of Seattle’s huge snowstorms to shovel snow away from the front door only to get stuck in his car on the drive home.

But mostly, it seems, people remember his generosity of spirit.

Kim Cronin, mitigation specialist supervisor at ACA, recalled a time several years ago when she was upset with Don over a stance he’d taken. Sensing her upset, he asked her to share her thoughts with him, which she did. The heart-to-heart conversation that followed changed the trajectory of her career. “He heard me,” she said. “And he did a 180.”

Through tears, she added, “He was a sensitive and caring person.”

Rachael Schultz, now the program/project manager at ACA, recalled attending banquets with Don and his wife Barbara Madsen, former chief justice for the Washington State Supreme Court, where they both encouraged her to not limit herself professionally. “He would often tell me that – to remember that I had options,” she said.

Edwin Aralica, now the interim managing attorney at ACA, said Don would often extend himself for his staff. In 2007, for instance, when Edwin was a felony attorney and Don was his supervisor, Edwin left on a vacation for Europe – days later, ACA’s direct deposit system broke. Unbeknownst to Edwin, Don took Edwin’s paycheck to his bank and deposited it himself, knowing Edwin might need the funds while traveling.

“I remembered thinking that he was treating me like I was special,” Edwin said. “But I eventually came to realize he was like that with everybody. He treated everyone like they were special.”

Many from ACA stayed in touch with Don after he was diagnosed with ALS, texting him until he could no longer use the phone, then communicating with him via his wife. Rachael recalls their last conversation via text, when she asked him what advise he had for her as a parent to her young daughter, Emily.

“He told me to tell her I loved her very much and that she could always count on me – and to go forward and never look back.”


A celebration of Don Madsen’s life will be held Sunday, July 31, at Seattle University School of Law, 901 12th Ave, Seattle. Doors open at 3:30 p.m.; the program begins at 4. Food and drinks will be served.

Don is survived by his wife Barbara of 41 years; their four children, Sam, Hillary (Rob), Eleanor (Craig), and Beau (Samantha), and three grandchildren, Levi, Paris, and Clare.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s