Ed Burnette, Cook County Public Defender, Speaks to LWVPFA
Park Forest, IL–(ENEWSPF)– On a beautiful summer morning, in the beautiful setting of a Park Forest backyard garden, over 30 League of Women Voters of Park Forest Area members and friends heard a very enlightening talk by Ed Burnette, the Public Defender of Cook County, who is a Matteson resident.
Mr Burnette reported on the wide reaching responsibilities of his staff of over 700, including more than 400 attorneys. They are involved in three justice systems – criminal, civil, and juvenile. He said that his office represents 400,000 individuals a year and that in his career he has represented 2 million people. According to Mr. Burnette, Cook County has the largest unified court system in the world.
He also told the audience that more than half the attorneys and more than half those in supervisory positions are women.
Despite, or perhaps because of its size, Cook County felony public defenders (PD's) each represent 319 defendants per year – twice the national average; misdemeanor PDs are four times the national average.
Mr. Burnette described his $52 million budget as about $30 million less than needed. He was particularly critical of attempts to cut support personnel who are crucial to his office serving the public because some people are more comfortable talking to a receptionist than to an "arrogant lawyer."
Mr. Burnette discussed the ordeal which began in December, 2006, when he was told to cut his budget 17% by laying off 212 PDs. He explained that paying private attorneys to defend those his office could not serve would be far more expensive than the savings involved. Burnette won that issue, but the struggle continued. Attempts to have PDs work 4 days per week were rejected by judges who couldn't run courtrooms with judges and prosecutors working 5 days per week but PDs only there four.
Mr Burnette's efforts to serve the public and run his office independently without political influence resulted in his filing a lawsuit against the Cook County Board President. Burnette subsequently received a resolution from the Board accusing him of dereliction of duty. According to Burnette, many Cook County commissioners and other elected officials were very supportive of Mr. Burnette, especially after learning that his "dereliction of duty" was actually an effort on his part to see that county government behaved responsibly.
Currently, Mr Burnette still has his job. He stressed his commitment to keeping a diverse staff, chosen by merit instead political influence.