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Stroger announces choice to be new public defender

Wednesday, March 04, 2009
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by John Flynn Rooney

Cook County Board President Todd H. Stroger has nominated veteran Cook County Associate Judge Abishi C. Cunningham to serve as the county's next chief public defender through March 2015.

Cunningham, who is known as ''A.C.,'' would replace Edwin A. Burnette, the county's public defender since 2003. Burnette's term expires on March 31.

Last year, Stroger mounted an attempt to fire Burnette and then dropped the plan in May. But a legal dispute involving Stroger and Burnette over who has the authority to hire and fire employees in the public defender's office remains pending in the 1st District Appellate Court.

Cunningham, 61, has served on the Cook County bench since 1986 and is currently assigned to the Law Division's Trial Section. A native of Welch, W.Va., Cunningham graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 1972 and initially worked as a legal assistant for what is now the State Board of Education. He could not be reached for comment early Wednesday afternoon.

Cunningham also worked as a prosecutor, a defense lawyer and private practitioner. He also has served as a supervising attorney in the now-defunct criminal defense consortium, an alternative to the public defender's office. He followed that with a brief stint in private practice before rejoining the Cook County state's attorney's office, where he rose to chief in the 1st Municipal District.

In a letter to Cook County commissioners that bore Tuesday's date, Stroger cited Cunningham's ''extensive legal and administrative experience that will be an asset in the administration of the Cook County public defender's office.''

Stroger's nomination of Cunningham was placed on the agenda for Wednesday's County Board meeting. At that meeting, Commissioner Lawrence J. Suffredin Jr. said that Stroger's nomination must be considered at a public hearing before the board's Legislation, Intergovernmental Relations and Veterans Committee, which he chairs.

That committee meeting will take place before the County Board's next regularly scheduled meeting on March 17, according to Suffredin. Cunningham's selection as public defender must receive the consent of the County Board members, he added.

Suffredin said he handled cases against Cunningham in the 1970s and called him a great lawyer and good judge.

''I'm disappointed [Stroger] didn't reappoint Ed Burnette,'' Suffredin said. ''But the people of Cook County will be well served by A.C. Cunningham.''

Burnette said he has met Cunningham in social situations but doesn't know him well.

''If [Cunningham] is selected, I will do everything [possible] to assist in a smooth transition,'' said Burnette, who has worked in the public defender's office since 1987, including a stint as first assistant. ''In my view, the work is more important that one individual and the work must go on.''

Nearly two weeks ago, the Chicago Council of Lawyers had called upon Stroger and County Board members to appoint a 15-member selection committee to conduct a search and identify appropriate candidates to fill the post.

The Council issued a written statement Wednesday saying its members look forward to working with Cunningham.

''But the Council is concerned that the position of public defender was filled without a public process,'' the statement added. ''We believe that transparent and reform-minded government demands that the selection process for the public defender requires a nationwide search and formal appointment process.''

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