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Cunningham out as public defender

Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by John Flynn Rooney

Cook County is searching for a new public defender.

The six-year tenure of Abishi C. Cunningham ends March 31, and he is not being considered for another term.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle “felt it was time to take the office in a new direction and elected to appoint a new public defender,” a statement from a Preckwinkle spokeswoman says.

Cunningham was appointed to the job by Preckwinkle’s predecessor, Todd Stroger.

When asked if he was being pushed out of office, Cunningham declined to comment.

“I’ve done my time,” Cunningham said.

In December, Preckwinkle formed a search committee to screen candidates.

“I assumed (from that announcement) that I would not have been the person she would have chosen,” Cunningham said.

The five-member search committee received resumes from interested candidates along with recommendations from six law schools, the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, The Chicago Bar Association, the Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Cook County Bar Association.

The search committee, headed by 1st District Appellate Justice Joy V. Cunningham, who is not related to the current public defender, has interviewed seven candidates who aren’t being identified. She could not be reached for comment.

The search committee will winnow its list to three candidates whose names will go to Preckwinkle.

Other committee members include Jeffrey Urdangen of Northwestern University School of Law and Rhoda Davis Sweeney, a retired Cook County judge.

Preckwinkle’s candidate for public defender is expected to be submitted to the Cook County Board next month, with the expected final approval in April.

The Illinois Constitution mandates that the public defender’s office provide legal services to the indigent in criminal cases. The office has roughly 680 employees, including about 500 lawyers.

Before becoming public defender, Cunningham served as a Cook County associate judge from 1986 until his retirement from the bench in March 2009.

Cunningham also worked as a supervising attorney for the now-defunct Criminal Defense Consortium, an alternative to the public defender’s office.

He worked briefly in private practice and later joined the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, where he rose to chief of the 1st Municipal District.

Cunningham, 67, called his time as public defender “by far the most rewarding” part of his legal career.

“I’m working with people who are dedicated and passionate about helping people,” he said. “The dedication of the people in this office is unmatched.”

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