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State budget cuts could affect appeals division and its work

Monday, March 22, 2010
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Bethany Krajelis

SPRINGFIELD — State budget cuts could deliver a hit to the already bruised appeals division of the Cook County state's attorney's office.

The prosecutor's office, which is the only one in the state that handles its own appellate work, is seeking $3.4 million in state money for its Criminal Appeals Division under the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor's Fiscal Year 2011 budget.

The state appellate prosecutor's office handles the criminal appeals for the other 101 counties and provides the Cook County office with a grant to supplement county funding for the appeals division that handles nearly half of all the state's appeals.

Though the prosecutor's office has continued to stump the legislature for a $3 million-plus appropriation over the years, the state's recent financial situation has forced the appeals unit to manage a heavy caseload with about two dozen less attorneys.

Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Alan J. Spellberg, the deputy supervisor of the Criminal Appeals Division, said his office received $1.7 million in state money last year under a grant from the appellate prosecutor's office. He said the appeals division had been getting about $2.7 million in funding until about 2008, when it dropped to $2.5 million.

The reduced grant and county budget cuts have left the appeals division with a backlog of briefs and not enough attorneys to play catch up.

Spellberg said the appeals division should operate with 105 attorneys, but that cuts have brought that number down to 76, which means there are 29 fewer assistant state's attorneys to manage the nearly 140 briefs the office gets during an average month.

According to a memo that the Cook County state's attorney's office gave to lawmakers last week in Springfield, the grant from the state's attorneys appellate prosecutor's office used to provide for 37 attorneys, but currently only covers 15.

"We only can do so much work with the number of people we have," Spellberg said, explaining that his division prepares briefs in response to those filed by the Office of the State Appellate Defender, the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender, and private and pro-bono attorneys.

In comparison to the Criminal Appeals Division's 76 attorneys (57 full-time and 19 part-time), Spellberg pointed to the Office of the State Appellate Defender's 1st District office, which has more than 80 full-time and a dozen part-time lawyers to handle about 75 percent of his office's cases.

Spellberg's office filed more than 1,300 briefs in 2009, during which time the Criminal Appeals Division participated in more than 130 oral arguments to the Appellate Court and 25 to the state Supreme Court.

With a minimum of 30 new briefs each week, the memo from the prosecutor's office said "the assistants working in this unit are double if not tripled on their assignments."

The office's high caseload has produced a backlog of 198 briefs. That figure also includes about 80 briefs that are now past their deadline. There's an additional 234 briefs that have been assigned to attorneys in the appeals division, but not yet written.

Despite the amount of the appellate prosecutor's grant, Cook County's appeals division remains responsible for handling all of the criminal appeals in the county, which also means it is required to meet deadlines as to not violate a defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial.

"In order to do our jobs and to do them well and to ensure the defendants' constitutional rights to appeal, we need to have adequate funding," Spellberg said.

Lawmakers have not yet voted on Gov. Patrick J. Quinn's proposed FY2011 budget, which calls for cuts, borrowing and a tax increase to bring the state out of a nearly $13 billion hole.

bkrajelis@lbpc.com


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