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Stroger, exiting public defender seal pact on authorities

Wednesday, April 01, 2009
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Jerry Crimmins

On his last day in office as Cook County public defender, Edwin A. Burnette signed a consent decree Tuesday with County Board President Todd H. Stroger that settled a power dispute between the two in favor of the public defender.

The decree says the state Public Defender Act, 55 ILCS 5/3-4008.1, gives the public defender ''sole discretion to hire, discipline, and terminate assistants and staff'' that he deems necessary to perform the duties of the office.

The decree also says the law gives the public defender ''sole and complete discretion over the affairs, management, and operations'' of his office subject to County Board appropriations and union agreements.

Finally, the decree says that, if the County Board amends the appropriations bill, the public defender ''shall retain the sole authority and discretion'' to decide how to implement any such amendment.

The consent decree was approved by Cook County Circuit Judge Daniel A. Riley, who was presiding over a suit filed by Burnette against Stroger.

Burnette sued Stroger in November 2007 after the County Board president, in the midst of budget cuts, laid off 17 assistant public defenders and 17 staff, forced other employees to take unpaid furloughs and hired a special assistant for himself, paid from Burnette's budget.

Burnette argued that Stroger had exceeded his authority during budget cutting by targeting Burnette's senior staff and managers.

Burnette also argued that the unpaid furloughs Stroger ordered were never approved by the County Board. The 1st District Appellate Court on Monday issued a ruling favorable to Burnette.

During the dispute, in April 2008, the County Board moved to replace Burnette as public defender. On Wednesday, the new public defender, former associate judge Abishi C. Cunningham, was sworn in by his sister, Circuit Judge Marjorie C. Laws, presiding judge of the Markham Branch of Circuit Court.

The end of the dispute ''represents a great victory'' for Burnette and the public defender's office, said Victor P. Henderson of Holland & Knight LLP, who represented Burnette along with Christopher W. Carmichael of that firm.

''The only travesty in the entire matter is that Ed Burnette had to lose his job in the process,'' Henderson said. ''But for his courage in standing up to Todd Stroger, it is likely that he would have been appointed for another six-year term. There is a price to pay for justice and in this case that price was Ed's job.''

Attorney Burton S. Odelson, who represented Stroger along with attorneys Robert Wilder and Michael J. McGrath, said the consent decree reached Tuesday ''clarifies the responsibility of the [County Board] president, the County Board and the public defender.''

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