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Politics and public defenders

Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Chicago Tribune

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger on Monday dropped his effort to fire Public Defender Edwin Burnette. Maybe one side blinked. Maybe both.

This much is for certain: We have one more case where Todd Stroger has tried to put patronage politics ahead of public service. And one more case where Stroger's power needs to be clipped.

In recent months you could paddle a canoe through the river of acrimony separating Stroger and Burnette.

Stroger accused Burnette of dereliction of duty in a number of procedural areas, such as tolerating a backlog of cases and not processing promotions quickly enough.

Burnette filed a lawsuit last fall alleging that Stroger thwarted the public defender's statutory independence. Burnette said that Stroger tried to force hires on Burnette's office outside its apolitical merit process—and that Stroger stuck on Burnette's payroll a lawyer who did no public defender work.

Several respected leaders in the court system say privately that they've been deeply troubled by this dispute. They say Burnette runs a solid office and that Stroger has tried to wrest control of it.

Should an executive official be messing with an important component of the criminal justice system?

The answer is no. And there's a way to diminish that kind of interference. In every other Illinois county, the chief judge of the circuit court appoints the public defender. Only in Cook County does the County Board president make that appointment. The Illinois General Assembly should change the law so Cook County conforms to that protocol. Here's the rationale:

The public defender has an often unpopular mission. He or she represents indigent criminal defendants—some of them innocent of any crime, some of them guilty of horrific violence. Like the elected state's attorney, the public defender shouldn't be taking orders from any politician about how to run what should be an independent, professional office. Imagine the impact on the justice system's fairness if politicians—who are supremely vulnerable to public opinion—tell public defenders which cases deserve the most resources. Or if the pols dictate that, say, accused child molesters are just too heinous (and costly) for their county to defend.

Imagine, too, what every other Cook County appointee—including the allegedly independent overseers of the county's grossly mismanaged health-care system—would conclude if Stroger succeeded in firing Burnette. The message would be clear: Do what Stroger says, hire the mopes Stroger sends, serve Stroger's political needs—or Stroger will get rid of you too.

Maybe the Stroger-Burnette schism really is healed. But the risk of its reappearance is a problem that doesn't have to be. Burnette's term ends in April. His successor should be appointed not by the County Board president but by Cook County's top judge.

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