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CHICAGO — Officials for Cook County, Ill., which includes the Chicago metropolitan area, will soon decide whether to fire for the first time ever the county’s public defender. The Cook County Board of Commissioners will consider a resolution calling for the ouster of Public Defender Edwin A. Burnette at a May 7 hearing after Democratic Board President Todd H. Stroger moved to dismiss Burnette earlier this year. Discussions among commissioners on the matter are raising legal questions about what authority they have to weigh in on Burnette’s fate. While Illinois law gives the president power to terminate the defender for “good cause,” some commissioners want input too and fear the issue may end up in court. Hanging in the balance is legal work on behalf of the poor in the second-most populous county in the United States. “We’re going to insist on an open hearing and a board vote,” said Anthony Peraica, a lawyer and Republican who co-sponsored the dismissal resolution. “It’s kind of an unprecedented situation.” A bipartisan group of commissioners, nine of the 17, sponsored the resolution claiming that Stroger has reason to fire Burnette for employee mismanagement that has slowed work of the public defender’s office and for creating financial liability in suing Stroger last November over cuts in workers, pay and benefits. Burnette on April 29 sought a temporary restraining order in the case to keep Stroger from presiding over the May 7 board meeting or dismissing the public defender until the litigation has played out or until Burnette is given a detailed list of the reasons for termination plus an opportunity to rebut the claims. Is it payback? Even some of the resolution’s sponsors, including Peraica, say it’s important to hear Burnette’s side of the story, and they’re open to changing their minds. Many commissioners recognize that the pace of work in the office is dependent on judges and prosecutors as much as the defender. Burnette argues that Stroger’s campaign to oust him is simply payback for the lawsuit he filed in Cook County Circuit Court against the president’s office. Burnette v. Stroger, No. 07-33805. Only the public defender has the right to order job and pay changes, Burnette argues in the lawsuit. “There was a need to protect my lawyers and my clients from political interference,” Burnette said in an interview. Chicago Attorney Bill Hooks, who is representing Burnette, said that Stroger’s ousting of the public defender would bolster the lawsuit. “That’s called retaliation,” he said. The Chicago Council of Lawyers, a public interest bar association, called the resolution a “political intrusion,” and praised Burnette for bringing “constructive reform in our courts.” Burnette is slated to serve through March of next year under his appointment to a six-year term by Stroger’s father, the late John Stroger, who was board president before his son. Stroger’s office said the hearing is scheduled to be closed because it relates to personnel matters. Ibis Antongiorgi, a spokeswoman for his office, denied that the dismissal was about retaliation. “There is reason for cause and it’s outlined in the resolution and the president wants to make sure that the office runs efficiently,” Antongiorgi said. Democrat Commissioner Larry Suffredin, an attorney with the Chicago law firm Shefsky & Froelich, said Burnette deserves a due process hearing not only out of fairness to the public defender, but in the interest of preserving the independence of other offices. “There’s a reason why a public office is given a term,” Suffredin said. “It is to insulate it from political pressures.” Supporters of the resolution aren’t recognizing that Burnette, unlike other county officials, has a constitutional mandate to protect legal services for indigent people, said Commissioner Forrest Claypool, also a lawyer and a Democrat. Still, Commissioner Peter N. Silvestri, another Republican lawyer who sponsored the resolution, said it was wrong of Burnette to take his disagreement over the budget into court, partly because county taxpayers are now footing the bill for lawyers arguing the case. While Silvestri said he believes the president has the ultimate authority to remove Burnette, he’d like the State’s Attorney’s Office to offer an opinion on that point. “I don’t necessarily want to be part of removing him because he filed the suit,” Silvestri said.

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