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Public defender wins round against county

Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Law Bulletin
by John Flynn Rooney

Lawyers for Cook County Board President Todd H. Stroger plan to appeal a court order stalling an effort by county commissioners to fire Public Defender Edwin A. Burnette.

On Friday afternoon, Circuit Judge Daniel A. Riley entered a temporary restraining order preventing the County Board from holding a hearing Wednesday on Burnette's fate.

Riley said Burnette is entitled to due process and more information about the way the County Board proceedings will be conducted.

Burton S. Odelson, an attorney for Stroger, said Monday that he will file an appeal of Riley's order with the 1st District Appellate Court by the end of the workday.

The appeal will assert that the TRO is premature because the County Board has not yet conducted a hearing regarding Burnette's job status, Odelson said.

The appeals court could rule on Stroger's appeal by the middle of next week, said Odelson, a principal of Odelson & Sterk Ltd. in Evergreen Park. Michael J. McGrath, an Odelson & Sterk partner, also represents Stroger.

Riley had scheduled a hearing on Burnette's motion for a preliminary injunction on Friday. But that hearing will be delayed until the Appellate Court has ruled, according to Odelson.

Odelson said he will ask attorneys for Burnette to agree to extend Riley's temporary restraining order until the appeals court rules.

The latest court action stems from a lawsuit filed on Burnette's behalf alleging that Stroger has illegally interfered in the operation of the public defender's office. Edwin A. Burnette, etc. v. Todd H. Stroger, et al., No. 07 CH 33805.

In early April, a majority of the Cook County Board responded by filing a resolution seeking Burnette's removal for ''dereliction of duty.''

The resolution was filed by nine members of the County Board, five Democrats and four Republicans. The board comprises 17 members.

Stroger's name is absent from the resolution, which cites Burnette's lawsuit as one of the reasons to dismiss him. Burnette is in the fifth year of a six-year term as called for under the Public Defender Act, 55 ILCS 5/3-4004.2.

Early last week, lawyers for Burnette filed the motion seeking to delay the County Board's meeting this week concerning Burnette.

''We have no sense of what the rules are for the hearing,'' Paul W. Mollica, an attorney for Burnette, told Riley during Friday's hearing.

Mollica said it's clear that Burnette's lawsuit is the main reason for the removal proceedings.

''There is an issue about the importance of the independence of the public defender,'' Mollica said.

Mollica is a principal of Meites, Mulder, Mollica & Glink in Chicago. William H. Hooks, who heads a Chicago law firm bearing his name, also represents Stroger.

McGrath argued, however, that Burnette's lawsuit and the removal proceedings before the County Board are two distinct issues.

Odelson said at Friday's hearing that he had told Mollica that lawyers for Burnette could present any testimony or witnesses they wanted before the County Board.

''We've got a long way to go,'' Riley said at the end of Friday's half-hour hearing.

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