Cook Co. public defender fighting for job

April 30, 2008 5:56:16 PM PDT
Cook County Board President Todd Stroger wants to replace the head of the public defender's office.But the man who holds that position filed a restraining order to try to stop Stroger from removing him.

Fifty-eight-year-old Edwin Burnett, the Cook County public defender says he does not want to give up his job. The former Marine Corps lawyer was appointed in 2003 to lead the office by then-county board president John Stroger. But John's son and successor wants to fire Burnett and install his own public defender a year before Burnett's six-year term expires.

"When that job given to me by statute is taken over by someone else, it does not ensure the quality of the individuals who come into the office," said Burnett.

The public defender's office is mandated by state law to represent criminal defendants who cannot afford their own attorneys.

Burnett says there are 478 lawyers in his department, each of whom handles about 319 cases at a time, more than twice the national average. President Stroger and his allies on the board of commissioners say caseloads notwithstanding, inmates in the overcrowded county jail are waiting too long for trials because he says public defenders don't work hard enough.

"We have a 40-hour work mandate. Everyone needs to work eight hours a day to get a full day's pay. We have some public defenders that don't work 40 hours," said Joseph Mario Moreno, Cook County Commissioner.

Stroger administration lawyers have compiled more than a hundred pages of evidence to back up their "dereliction of duty" allegation. But Burnett calls it retaliation spurred by a lawsuit he filed against Stroger late last year to prevent the president from interfering in his office's personnel matters.

"To lose control over the qualifications of individuals who come into the office leaves a suspect in terms of independence," said Burnett.

"And wanting the public to think that the president is doing this to retaliate is strictly a distraction on what he would like the public to think so that they sympathize with him," Moreno.

President Stroger would not comment on the case and his spokesman still has not delivered a promised written statement. The restraining order requested by Burnett would stop the firing process and effectively save his job.

President Stroger does not need board approval to terminate the public defender.

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