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Public defender nominee a 23-year office veteran

Thursday, March 12, 2015
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Marc Karlinsky

The lawyer nominated to be Cook County’s next public defender will be the second woman to lead the office in its 84-year history.

Amy P. Campanelli, currently an assistant public defender and deputy of suburban operations, has been nominated by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to take over the office’s top spot following a search process that began in December.

Campanelli replaces Abishi C. Cunningham, who came to the role after serving as a Cook County associate judge from 1986 to 2009. He was appointed as public defender by former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger in April 2009, replacing Edwin A. Burnette.

At a press conference Wednesday — flanked by Preckwinkle and Burnette — Campanelli noted that she comes from “the trenches” of the office.

“I worked my way up. I started as a law clerk in 1985. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a public defender,” she said.

Preckwinkle did not invite Cunningham to attend the official announcement, but she will honor his service at the April 1 meeting.

“I made a different decision about the direction in which we were going,” Preckwinkle said.

She declined to discuss specific issues she had with Cunningham’s tenure.

Campanelli said Cunningham has supported her recommendations for reform in areas such as veterans court.

“I can’t really think of anything that Judge Cunningham and I did not agree on because he trusted me to know what was in the best interests of the clients,” she said.

The county board will vote on Campanelli’s nomination at its April 1 meeting, the day after Cunningham’s term expires.

A graduate of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, Campanelli has spent 23 of her 28 years practicing in the public defender’s office — the past 12 of them in a management role.

“I have dedicated my life to representing the indigent accused,” she said. “I’ve represented our poor, our weak, our hopeless, our mentally ill, our drug-addicted, our youthful-accused.”

And as the second-largest public defender’s office in the country, there’s a lot of clientele who the office takes in, regardless of the particular criminal charges or their backgrounds.

“Fairness and justice are the most critical components or our criminal justice system, which affects those who are the most vulnerable in our society,” Campanelli said. “We represent veterans, exploited women, adults, minors and parents who face the loss of their children.”

As deputy of suburban operations, Campanelli oversees defense work in the county’s specialty courts for mental health, drugs and veterans’ issues. She trains attorneys on handling clients with mental illness and advocates outcomes where clients can get treatment.

“It’s an exciting time to be involved in the criminal justice system,” she said. “Attitudes are changing regarding incarceration for non-violent offenders, mentally ill and people addicted to drugs. I will make sure that the Cook County public defender’s office is part of this positive change.”

She said she’s also worked with social-service agencies to meet less-recognized needs faced by poor people awaiting trial in jail.

“Our clients need assistance even with obtaining a basic necessity, such as receiving health benefits under the Affordable Care Act,” Campanelli said.

Burnette said he relied on Campanelli to represent his office on several boards and commissions while he was public defender for six years ending in 2009.

“The job is a thankless job — there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “But truth be told, it’s a voice for the voiceless. The job takes a lot of passion for the work and the people who do it. It takes a lot of commitment to the client that no one understands — and many people don’t care about. It takes a tough-but-devoted soul, a soul like Amy Campanelli.”

In a phone interview, Cunningham praised Campanelli for her work as one of his deputies.

He said he’s unsure exactly where he and Preckwinkle disagree on the direction of the office — and that they both see the same need to defend poor people.

“We have one mission,” Cunningham said. “As long as you have that as the goal, it’s going to be very hard to stray from that mission.”

He said he recognized Campa nelli’s leadership role and continued to promote her through the ranks.

“I knew that I could always count on Amy for her views and also some solutions,” he said. “Amy’s going to be a good leader for the office.”

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