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New public defender takes the helm

April 25, 2009

On April 1, Abishi C. Cunningham began a six-year term as head of the Cook County public defender’s office. He is the ninth person to hold that position and replaces Edwin A. Burnette. Cook County Board President Todd H. Stroger decided not to offer Burnette another term.


By John Flynn Rooney
Law Bulletin staff writer

Last year, Stroger mounted an effort to fire Burnette and then dropped that plan in May 2008. But litigation in the matter continued.

On March 30, the 1st District Appellate Court issued a ruling favorable to Burnette. The following day, Burnette signed a consent decree with Stroger that settled the power dispute between the two in the public defender’s favor.

The Cook County Board approved Cunningham’s appointment in mid-March.

The office he now heads comprises some 670 employees, including about 470 lawyers, and has a current annual budget of approximately $47.5 million.

The public defender’s office represents thousands of defendants in their criminal cases.

Cunningham, 61, received his undergraduate degree from Fisk University in Nashville in 1969. Three years later, he graduated from Northwestern University School of Law and was admitted to the Illinois bar in May 1973.

Abishi Cunningham

Abishi Cunningham

Cunningham’s initial job out of law school was working as a legal assistant for what is now the State Board of Education.

He also served as a supervising attorney for the now-defunct criminal defense consortium, an alternative to the public defender’s office. Cunningham then worked briefly in private practice and later joined the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, where he rose to chief of the 1st Municipal District.

Cunningham joined the Cook County Circuit Court as an associate judge in October 1986. He retired from the bench on March 31.

Law Bulletin staff writer John Flynn Rooney interviewed ”A.C.” Cunningham on April 15 in an office at 69 W. Washington St. Here are excerpts of that exchange:

What are your initial impressions about the office?

Having met a lot of the people in this building and having gone out to 26th Street [and California Avenue, where the Criminal Division is located] … my initial impression is that the office is full of dedicated people who want to serve the citizens of Cook County and there are some great lawyers here.

Have you experienced any crises yet?

We are all facing the crisis with the Capital Litigation Fund [that is used to pay experts in capital cases] that is depleted, and the question is how do we move forward between now and September? We have cases set for trial and we really need funding to properly represent our clients.

Are there options being considered?

I know we’ve contacted the state treasurer’s office to try to see if any more money can be allocated to us in that vein, and we are considering other options and what to do in case we can’t get the money from the state treasurer.

What are the biggest challenges facing the office?

This office is not unlike any other institution that depends upon money to operate. We all know that there is a global financial crisis going on now and it’s affected other institutions and it affects this office. What we need is financing.

How are you going to deal with the hiring freeze in place in Cook County?

From what I understand, there are certain circumstances and different circumstances where I can appear before the County Board and ask that exceptions be made for purposes of hiring. Until such time as I can assess the needs in this office in terms of personnel, and once that’s done, then I will appear before the board and ask that exceptions be made to the hiring freeze.

What kind of management principles and technology advances do you plan to utilize to improve the efficiency of the office?

I would like to get as much feedback from those people I trust in regards to the issues that come up in the office.

I think I’d like to assess the office in terms of its use of technology. I think that with the advancements that have been made in technology, especially those areas in how it’s been utilized in law offices, maybe through a better use of the technology that we may have or have to acquire, that we can operate more efficiently and still offer better representation for our clients.

Would that mean that there would be less use of employees?

I don’t necessarily think it will call for less use of humans. Just in terms of filing systems, case managements systems, I think a lot of what’s being done in the office now is paper-driven. Even the [Cook County Circuit Court] clerk’s office and other agencies have moved toward electronic filings. So, I think that will be one of the areas maybe we can make some advances in.

Describe your relationship with County Board President Todd Stroger.

My relationship with him has been one that is very communicative. When I was first asked if I was interested in filling the position, I told him yes. I sat down and discussed with him what my vision for the office would be. After that discussion, the nomination was made.

Since my nomination and my confirmation, I don’t believe I’ve had a conversation with him. But I did assure President Stroger, as well as all the Board members, that there will be an open line of communication between this office and the County Board and the president. That’s something that every commissioner I sat down with and talked to in regards to my nomination asked me is how open I would be in terms of communicating with them. I assured them that the lines of communication would be open.

Do you anticipate having any difficulties with President Stroger over hiring and firing of employees or who controls the office?


Did that come up at all in your discussions with President Stroger?


When do you plan to reach out to the area law schools concerning the Illinois Supreme Court Rule 711 program (allowing law students to argue cases under the supervision of a licensed attorney) and how many students do you expect to participate in that program?

I think we probably have already reached out to law schools or some law schools have reached out to us in terms of a 711 program and exactly how many, I don’t know. But it was brought up in a conversation that I had in a meeting with my top staff members yesterday. One of the things I want to do is form an advisory committee, which will be composed of a representative from each of the law schools in the city of Chicago and to include members of the private bar on an advisory capacity, so that we can sit down and discuss issues that concern our office and to listen to any suggestions they may have as to ways we can better implement mechanisms to provide a better service to the people.

I do want to generate more of an interest of law students upon graduation becoming public defenders because we have a lot to offer in this office. I think that there are young law students out there who have a lot to contribute. There’s an interest there. I just want to be sure that we can provide an avenue for that interest.

What are your personal challenges in taking the helm of the public defender’s office?

Probably learning how to delegate. Having been a sitting judge for 23 years, I pretty much was in a position where I made decisions and those decisions were followed. Now I’m in a situation where I … know one person can’t do everything. So, understanding that and making sure that I have people that I can trust and I can ask to do things and help me is very important.

How will your background as a judge affect your management or leadership style?

Well, as a judge there are always two sides to the issues that we have to decide, and we’re called upon to listen to both sides. Then, based upon the law, a decision has to be made. So, I think that I bring with me the ability to listen to a lot of different opinions, take those opinions into consideration and, after I’ve done that, I can make a decision.

Describe your management style.

Participative, meaning that two of my closest friends — Patrick [G.] Reardon is my first assistant and Mary Carol Farmar is my chief legal counsel — agreed to embark upon this with me. I trust their opinions. I trust them infinitely. I trust them to tell me even when they don’t agree with me. I expect that from any other manager or supervisor in this office, to be able to sit down and discuss with them the issues that may confront this office. [I want them] to give me their views, and based upon their input we can make a decision.

I don’t like to micro-manage people. I believe we are professionals and should do our duties as professionals.

What do you believe the public defender’s office does best?

Well, of course, representing our clients. I believe we do an excellent job at that. But one of the things I thought about in regards to this question is we manage to do a lot with little. Even with the budget constraints, I think that we still manage to provide a superb service to our clients and we will continue to do so.

Given that there there are budget constraints from the federal to the local level, is there any creative thinking going into how to attract more funding?

One of the options we’re exploring is through grants. I would like to see just how active we can be in terms of applying for grants and maybe finding grants that help supplement the budget that we have.

What’s the best thing about the job thus far?

Serving the underserved.

Do you expect to go into the courtroom and handle any cases?

It’s too early for me to say that at this point. Right now, my focus is trying to get a handle on the operations of this office.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rocky LaGioia permalink
    July 28, 2009 1:32 pm

    To Stephanie Berube,

    I have a few questions pertaining to my brother-in-laws brutal battle with his ex-wife regarding not custody or support but with his portion of college tuition even though he is bankrupt. Also, the procedure for a change in venu?

    His name is Marco Tanzi.

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