Public Defender can dictate staff, judge says

Cook County Board President Todd H. Stroger's efforts to trim his budget by laying off public defenders broke the law, according to a state appellate court decision.

The opinion by Judge Robert E. Gordon found that Cook County Public Defender Edwin Burnette -- and not Stroger -- had the power to hire and fire staff.

The Tuesday decision came one day before the end of Burnette's first and only term as public defender.

In 2007, Stroger attempted to balance the county's budget by cutting Burnette's staff. Burnette sued, alleging that such staffing decisions are reserved for the public defender as the head of an independent public agency.

In the decision, Gordon wrote that while the county board can set the budget for the public defender's office, decisions on staffing are the discretion of the public defender.

According to a statement released by Stroger, he "respects the opinion of the First District Appellate Court and is committed to following the terms of an agreement" with Burnette. 

That agreement dismisses the remaining litigation, recognizes the county board’s authority to appropriate and amend the public defender’s budget, and recognizing "the Public Defender's autonomy with respect to personnel and operations."

Staff Writer Fernando Diaz covers labor and unions for the Daily News. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 14, or fernando [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.