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What were sheriff's motives?

Thursday, June 16, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by Malcolm C. Rich
Letter to the Editor

On June 3, a jury in a civil lawsuit found that seven corrections officers at the Cook County Jail did not use excessive force against four inmates in July 2000. While the jury's verdict cleared the corrections officers of wrongdoing, the conduct of the litigation has raised concerns about officials at the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

Chicago attorney Jean Snyder, who has successfully litigated lawsuits concerning conditions at the Cook County Jail, initially represented the four inmates. In 2004, Sheriff Michael Sheahan accused Snyder of collaborating with the inmates to stage the beating in order to get big money in a lawsuit. The sheriff demanded that the Cook County state's attorney's office consider criminal charges against Snyder, and he also referred Snyder to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee for possible professional sanctions. These accusations were attended by extensive media coverage.

Subsequent investigations by the Cook County state's attorney's office and the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee cleared Snyder of any wrongdoing. But not before Snyder had been forced to withdraw from the case as a result of the sheriff's accusation.

In the closing arguments at the conclusion of the trial, the sheriff's lawyers informed the jury that they had no reason to believe that Snyder had been in any way involved in staging the beating. In the wake of the sheriff's highly public accusations against Snyder a little over a year earlier, this admission is, to say the least, surprising.

A fundamental component of our legal system is the freedom of litigants to choose their own attorney. An individual should be able to expect that his attorney will provide representation throughout the proceedings. Many would likely forego vindicating their legal rights in court if there was even a remote possibility that they would face the daunting task of changing lawyers during the litigation. Any sort of interference with the attorney/client relationship is a serious matter; improper tampering with the relationship intolerably compromises the rights of the litigant affected, perverts the court's processes, and is corrosive to the fair administration of justice.

The sheriff is not an ordinary participant in our justice system. The sheriff is a public official and as such has a duty to uphold the law and to conduct his office within the law's bounds. As a principal of Cook County's law enforcement community, the sheriff has a special ability to collect information and to screen that information for evidence of wrongdoing.

Snyder was forced to withdraw her representation from the four inmates because of the sheriff's accusations, which apparently have proved baseless. Whether or not Snyder's representation would have made a difference in the case cannot be known, but the inmates were entitled to her representation. The question should be asked: Did the sheriff have a good-faith basis for the accusations against Snyder or were the accusations designed to force her off the case?

Malcolm C. Rich,
executive director,
Chicago Council of Lawyers

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