Selecting a New Cook County Public Defender : The Process

On March 31, 2015, Abishi Cunningham’s six-year term as Public Defender for Cook County will end. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has elected to replace Cunningham with a new public defender. This choice is a critical one for the immediate future of criminal justice in Cook County. The Cook County Public Defender’s Office comprises nearly 750 staff members, including 550 attorneys who represent defendants in the grand majority of criminal cases in the county.

Though the selection of a public defender is entirely within the authority of the County Board President, after the appointment the position is highly independent. With this one appointment, the policy goals and management style for the government body that most directly represents the accused will be set for six years.

Due to the importance of this appointment and the lack of information available elsewhere on the process behind it, we at Cook County Justice Watch are describing the process here to better inform the public. This blog entry will describe the search process currently underway for the new Cook County P.D. The search is proceeding in three stages: (1) identifying prospective candidates, (2) review committee interviews; and (3) the President’s final selection and board approval.

Image Randy von Liski
Image Randy von Liski

Identifying Prospective Candidates

In December 2014 President Preckwinkle sent letters out to the six Chicago-area law schools, three local bar associations, and the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, inviting them to submit up to three names each to be considered by the President’s Review Committee.

The law schools included the University of Chicago Law School, the Northwestern University Law School, the John Marshall Law School, Chicago-Kent Law School, the Loyola University School of Law, and the DePaul University Law School. The three bar association are the Chicago Council of Lawyers, the Cook County Bar Association, and the Chicago Bar Association.

My own organization, Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, has been selected to collect recommendations from the social justice research policy community, including First Defense Legal Aid, Cabrini Green Legal Services, and Lawndale Christian Legal Services, and to narrow these recommendations down to three names.

These names—along with the résumés and an indication of the willingness of the individuals to be interviewed—are due to President Preckwinkle’s office by January 26, 2015.


The Review Committee

The next step is the President’s review committee. The review committee will take up to twelve names sent to them and conduct interviews to reduce the final list of recommendations to three.

The Review committee is chaired by Judge Joy Cunningham (no relation to Public Defender Cunningham), and comprises the following individuals:

  • Edwin Reyes, a former Chicago Police Officer and Board Commissioner,
  • Jeffrey Urdangen, clinical professor at the Northwestern School of Law and an established leader in the defense bar,
  • Diane Williams, the retired CEO of the Safer Foundation whose experience as a crime victim motivated her to make a career in reforming the rehabilitative opportunities presented to defendants, and
  • Patrick Covington, an ex-offender and a strong member of the alumni association of one of the County’s rehabilitative drug treatment programs.
  • Judge Rhoda Sweeney (ret.) is also on the committee as an alternate.


President’s Final Selection and Board Approval

The review committee must conclude its interview process and submit a final list of the three names to President Preckwinkle toward the end of February or the beginning of March. At this point President Preckwinkle will work toward getting the candidate approved by the Cook County Board at their mid-March meeting.

As the President, the review committee, and the various organizations do their work over the next two months they should keep in mind the various challenges that any qualified candidate for the position of Public Defender in Cook County has to be able to tackle. First, the new Public Defender has to be active in pushing forward reforms in the fast-changing world of criminal justice nationwide. Public Defenders have a key role to play in ensuring that racial and wealth disparities are addressed in the system, that judges, state’s attorneys, and law enforcement officers are respecting the rights of the accused, and that new case management and treatment opportunities are being effectively and correctly administered to their clients. Second, the Public Defender has to be able to effectively manage a large governmental office with a unionized workforce and be able to work collaboratively with other governmental departments and agencies in a county known for its tense interdepartmental politics.

The dates for the selection process are approaching quickly and we will be following this process closely.

Ali Abid is the Criminal Justice Policy Analyst with Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice