Reappoint Cook County public defender — or find somebody who’s just as good

Amy Campanelli has been one of the most proactive and committed public defenders in the county’s history. She set the bar high.

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Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli speaks during a news conference outside the Richard J. Daley Center in July 22.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Cook County public defender has one of the most important jobs in the criminal justice system. The incumbent, Amy Campanelli, is finishing her first six-year term and is interviewing for another six years.

We don’t know the qualifications of all the other applicants. But we do know this: Whoever gets the job going forward must be at least as good as Campanelli, which is a tall order. Campanelli has been one of the most proactive, committed public defenders in the county’s history.

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The county public defender runs a staff of more than 500 lawyers in 15 divisions who represent indigent defendants in 14 courthouses. Their work has a huge impact on their clients’ lives. The person at the top needs to be someone who ensures that the office is delivering the best possible representation. The work of the public defender never ends.

There is some concern that Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle might select someone else, although Preckwinkle says she is only going through the same review process with a five-member selection committee that she used six years ago to select Campanelli. Nobody, she says, should read anything into that.

Preckwinkle is expected to make her decision in the coming week, and the county board is expected to vote on that nomination before Campanelli’s term runs out on March 31.

“Campanelli is a no-nonsense reformer who looks at the entire system to see where there is unfairness that can be changed in sensible ways,” Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison reform group, told us. “She is progressive and is an incredible advocate for her clients.”

Campanelli created a team of public defenders who go to police stations to make sure people get legal representation and do not waive their rights. She created a mental health unit, as well, and an immigration unit to provide free representation when necessary.

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“I couldn’t be more pleased with what she has done,” said Rob Warden, the co-founder and retired executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions who sits on the Public Defender Advisory Board, which exchanges ideas with the public defender.

We’re told there is friction between Campanelli and her unionized work force of lawyers. And she was criticized for not doing enough to deal with a pattern of “masturbation attacks” by Cook County Jail inmates against assistant public defenders that led to a $14 million legal settlement. But the jail is not under her control.

Amy Campanelli is smart, diligent and hardworking. She deserves to be reappointed. But no matter whom is appointed, Campanelli has set the bar high.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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