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Stellar public servant should need no defense

Friday, May 02, 2008
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County Public Defender Edwin Burnette has defended the poor in Cook County for more than 20 years, but these days he's defending himself.

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger wants to fire him.

But after reviewing the allegations against Burnette, we believe he should be allowed to keep his job.

The accusations against Burnette amount to policy differences at best, trumped-up charges at worst. One allegation, for example, contends Burnette failed to properly discipline an office receptionist, a woman charged with receiving marijuana through the office mail.

After investigating those allegations and others, Burnette fired her. What more does Stroger want?

Another allegation, on the face of it, sounds more serious: More than 30 clients of public defenders have stewed in jail for more than five years while awaiting trial.

Nearly all of those cases involve murder charges, Burnette notes, and many have been held up by appeals on pretrial legal issues. Some have been delayed while the court awaits DNA lab results, and in every case, it is a judge who controls the pace. There are, in short, legitimate reasons.

What's truly at the heart of every allegation against Burnette is -- don't be shocked -- politics.

Burnette complains that Stroger has tried to push unqualified people into public defender jobs. Burnette has balked.

Politics has no place in the public defender's office. It defends people whose liberty is at stake, and sometimes, their lives.

No job for a political hack.

It is, in fact, a job for a man like Burnette, who grew up on the West Side and served in the Marines for 15 years.

In 1987, he started out on the bottom rung in the public defender's office and worked his way up. He's in the last year of his six-year term as public defender.

Today, Burnette will ask a Cook County judge to block a County Board hearing on Wednesday that could lead to his firing. Burnette just wants a fair -- and public -- hearing but rightly worries that's not on tap for him next week.

When Burnette, 57, visited with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board this week, we saw a public servant with integrity.

What a travesty to see such integrity called into question, so near the end of a fine career.



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