Lawyers say sheriff thwarts tours of jail
Monday, June 13, 2005
by Maurice Possley
Interning law students at two Chicago law firms have been barred from touring Cook County Jail--a long-standing practice aimed at educating aspiring attorneys--because the firms have previously sued the sheriff's office on behalf of jail inmates, according to lawyers for one of the firms.
"This is petty vindictiveness at its finest," said Greg McConnell, an attorney at Winston & Strawn. He said the firm was told by a lawyer for Sheriff Michael Sheahan that the only way a jail tour would be granted was to sign a waiver promising never to bring any lawsuit against the sheriff's office.
Jennifer Gallinson, another Winston lawyer, said she learned of the policy last month when she tried to set up the firm's annual jail tour for summer interns.
She said she was directed to Dan Brennan, an attorney for the sheriff, who informed her that Sheahan "is no longer allowing [jail tours for] any law firms who in the present or the past had lawsuits" against the sheriff.
The sheriff's office declined to respond to telephone requests for an explanation and did not respond to a written list of questions. Efforts to reach Brennan were unsuccessful.
County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a former public defender, said he met with lawyers for Sheahan, including Brennan, on Wednesday afternoon, and they confirmed that the firms were being barred.
"I encouraged them to talk to the law firms and asked them to reconsider and to try to work out a legitimate solution," he said.
"I used to bring lawyers--federal court law clerks--on a tour of the jail when I was a public defender," Suffredin said. "This is an important educational tool."
Suffredin said Sheahan's lawyers said the policy was unwritten and that a written waiver had yet to be drawn up.
Tours of the jail and the Criminal Courts Building often include informal meetings with such officials as Chief Judge Paul Biebel and State's Atty. Richard Devine. They have long been viewed at law firms as part of the commitment to expose law students and young lawyers to the importance of "pro bono" work--meaning without charge--on behalf of those who are financially unable to hire private lawyers.
Kimball Anderson, who heads the pro bono committee at Winston, was appointed by a federal judge to represent Stanley Jones in a lawsuit alleging that he had been beaten by gang members in the jail while awaiting trial.
In 2003 a federal jury awarded Jones $775,000 after finding that the county and two former top bosses at the jail failed to take reasonable measures to protect him from the attack. The case was later settled by the county out of court for $250,000.
Gallinson said that when she asked why the firm was being barred from the tour, Brennan asked whether she was aware of the Jones case.
"I said I was aware of it," she said. She said she then asked whether Winston was being singled out. Brennan told her that lawyers from the firm of Jenner & Block were barred from bringing summer interns on a jail tour for the same reason, Gallinson said.
Jenner attorney Jeffrey Colman said, "We are not doing a jail tour this summer." He declined to comment further.
A third law firm, McGuireWoods, which has not been involved in litigation against the sheriff's office, recently was granted a jail tour for summer associates. Christina Snell, recruiting manager at the firm, said her request for a tour "is good to go. We haven't come across any stumbling blocks."
Attorney Stephen D'Amore, who oversees the summer program at Winston, said, "The actual value [of such a tour] is exposure to the real inner workings of the criminal justice system on a firsthand level and is part and parcel of what we do on a broader scale in exposing our summer associates to the justice system."
Gallinson said Brennan said the only way the tours could proceed is if visitors would sign a waiver agreeing not to file a lawsuit against the county.
"If I attended, I would [be forced to] waive my right to bring such a lawsuit," Gallinson said.
Rachel Cannon, an assistant U.S. attorney, said last week that she took such a tour in 2000 when she was an associate lawyer at Winston. She later left Winston for the Cook County state's attorney's office, where she was a state prosecutor until 2003, when she was hired as a federal prosecutor.
"It's one of the few chances of a young associate in a big firm to see the wheels of justice, and it is a way to entice young lawyers to do pro bono work, which I feel every young lawyer has a duty to do," she said.
Winston's Anderson noted that the firm was not looking for cases against the sheriff's office.
"A federal judge calls and says I need a favor--take a case pro bono," Anderson said in describing how the firm came to represent Jones. "It happens once a year."