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Layoffs loom for 63 public defenders

Monday, July 24, 2017
Chciago Daily Law Bulletin
by David Thomas

Sixty-nine staff members in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office — 63 of them attorneys — will be laid off in August after the proposed soda tax was put on hold in court.

That amounts to almost a 15 percent drop in the number of attorneys who represent defendants who are too poor to afford private counsel, from the current 430 lawyers on staff, according to Public Defender Amy P. Campanelli. This would come on top of the office’s current 50 unfilled attorney positions.

“All clients will suffer, all attorneys will suffer, all staff will suffer, all stakeholders will suffer because everything will slow down,” Campanelli said.

First Assistant Public Defender Keith N. Ahmad said the office faced the same 10 percent budget cut required of all county offices, but there was little other than personnel they could cut from the already lean operation. Campanelli added that this comes on top of previous 1-percent and 3-percent holdbacks from the county.

“This is really a 14-percent [reduction],” she said, adding she is concerned the reductions would make her office unable to fulfil its constitutional requirements.

“We may be so understaffed that the operations will be extremely curtailed,” she said.

This will lead to larger caseloads for the legal defenders who are already working on too many cases, according to Ahmad and Kevin J. Ochalla, an assistant public defender and the president of the union that represents them.

“The math is going to have consequences long-term. Cases are going to take longer to dispose of. Defendants will stay in jail longer,” Ahmad said. “The taxpayer will still pay, they’ll just pay in a different way.”

Ochalla said that if public defenders can’t take on the cases, then the courts will have to turn to private counsel, which will be more expensive.

“This office does this job the most effectively at the lowest cost that it can be done,” Ochalla said. “Somebody’s going to have to pay to have attorneys represent these folks. We’re there, we do it, we do it effectively, we are the best way to have it done.”

Ochalla said the union — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3315 — is doing what it can to fight the layoffs from going into effect.

This includes putting pressure on county commissioners, who approve the county budget, and rallying bar associations and “people that understand what kind of impact this cut will have on the court system,” he said.

“We have made it clear in our presentations and our outreach that the attorneys that remain … their caseloads are going to skyrocket,” Ochalla said. “That’s going to become worse the less people we have in our office who can do this job.”

Electronic notices of the pending layoffs were sent out July 14. They take effect Aug. 13.

As a result of the defenders’ union contract, the employees with the least seniority are laid off first.

The office’s 1st Municipal Division — which covers the city of Chicago and includes traffic court, domestic violence cases and misdemeanor branch courts — will lose 24 defenders alone, Ahmad said. It’s currently at 50 attorneys and fully staffed at 56.

The civil division — where defenders represented parents who are accused of abusing and neglecting their children — are also losing 23 of their 31 defenders, he added.

Campanelli is scheduling meetings with stakeholders, including Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, to figure how to handle the cuts, she said. She said she is working with three options: merging court calls, ceasing to staff certain divisions or making cuts across all divisions.

The sweetened beverage tax was scheduled to go into effect on July 1, but a challenge from Cook County retailers caused Circuit Judge Daniel J. Kubasiak to issue a temporary restraining order on June 30.

Kubasiak heard arguments in the case Friday and said he expected to issue a ruling this Friday.

The case is Illinois Retailers Association, et al. v. The Cook County Department of Revenue, et al., 17 L 50596.

Chicago Lawyer editor Paul Dailing contributed to this report.

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