By Dustin Seibert
In the past 10 months, these stories showed the human side of the attorneys and supervisors within the Cook County state's attorney's and public defender's offices. Through their stories, readers learned that popular stereotypical media portrayals of these attorneys seldom do justice to what their lives are like outside of the courtroom.
As Chicago Lawyer winds down the series, it looks into the minds and motivations of the leaders of both offices: Public Defender Abishi C. Cunningham and State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. They offer insight into what issues were most important when they took their jobs, and their personal successes and challenges.
To say it's been a challenging year for Cook County Public Defender Abishi Cunningham would be something of an understatement.
This past winter saw Cunningham and his office in the middle of a tough budget battle with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — one in which the office avoided a potentially devastating number of layoffs through the use of unpaid furlough days. With a still-floundering economy, the future remains uncertain.
A Welch, W.Va. native, Cunningham graduated with a bachelor of science degree from Fisk University in 1969 and a law degree from Northwestern University School of Law in 1972.
His first time in the Cook County legal arena was as an assistant state's attorney after spending a year as a legal advisor to Michael Bakalis, the state superintendent of education from 1971 to 1975.
He knows what it's like to be a judge as well. He was a Cook County Circuit Court judge until he retired in March 2009 after 23 years. Cunningham left retirement to become the public defender in April 2009.
Cunningham is not yet certain if his term, up in 2015, will mark the conclusion of his career in public service. What is certain is that his fight to provide adequate protection to Cook County's accused is not one that is likely to provide him much rest in the next four years.
How has the overall experience been in the past 2 ½ years?
Very gratifying. I believe that the work we do in this office is work that needs to be done. We represent people who don't have a voice; we talk for them, and it's different from being on the bench. (There) I was the judge — I sat and made the decisions. Here, I'm actually an advocate for poor people.
What aspect of your career has given you the most insight into your current gig?
I think all of my past experiences help me do this work. It's a conglomerate of everything that I bring to the office … my years of experience and my years of observations from a lot of different aspects.
What do you consider your biggest professional success with the office since becoming the public defender?
One of the visions I had when I came in was to update the office in terms of technology. I think that we made tremendous strides in terms of doing that. Let's face it: This is a technological age that we're living in. When I was on the bench at the Daley Center, lawyers would try cases and they would have all the computers, monitors and projectors that they would bring into courtrooms to try their cases. I saw this was something we weren't doing on the criminal side … at least our office wasn't utilizing new computers in terms of helping us do our jobs better. I think in the 2 ½ years this office has been in place, we've made that better.
Do you feel as if your technology is on par with the state's attorney's office?
It's hard for me to compare because I'm not familiar with what they have, but I would love to be in the position to have my own tech person working for this office. While I think the state's attorney's office has their own tech office, we don't.
Any big challenges you've encountered in completing your job to the best of your abilities?
It's not so much the office as maybe it's me. Perhaps I'm seen as a little bit impatient — I'd like to see things change a little bit faster than it ordinarily takes. So we function very well and we do great work, but I also understand that we can get better at what we do. So when I see things and make certain changes, I have to realize that it takes time. As one of the lawyers in this office pointed out to me when I first came in, "This is a marathon, not a sprint."
Describe to me what it's like seeing your attorneys working in the "trenches."
I'm proud of them. I'm able to watch the work they are doing firsthand. When I was on the bench I watched them, but now I'm looking at them from a different viewpoint. These are advocates, so I'm proud to see these young men and women go forth and do what they are supposed to do.
Lots of your supervisors miss being in the courtroom on a regular basis. Do you ever miss it?
I'm there, but in a different capacity. I'm not there trying the cases. Do I miss that aspect of it? No. But I like being there. I like watching the younger lawyers in this office carry on the work that we do.
I did it for several years and was on the bench for 23 and a half years. Do I actually have the desire to get back in the world and try a case? I leave that to the younger lawyers who still have the fire in their bellies, but I take great pride in the work that they do.
How do you think you've navigated the well-publicized financial morass of the office?
It would be nice if we had more money. It's very challenging not only for this office, but for county government period. We're making the best of things: One of our mottos is "we do more with less." And we will continue to fight the battle.
What one thing would you like to accomplish with the office before the end of your term?
My vision — my hope — is that I leave the office in better shape than it was when I got here. Not that it was bad, but I'm always a believer that even though you do good things, you can always do better.
It had been five years since Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez tried a bench trial on her own.
She ended that streak Sept. 19 when she took a chair in the Cook County Criminal Courts Building for a highly publicized case against Shawn Gaston, charged with first-degree murder in the June 1 shooting death of Chicago police officer Alejandro Valadez.
Alvarez became the first Latina and female Cook County state's attorney when she became the office's leader in December 2008. Twenty-two years prior, she started as an assistant state's attorney after graduating from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1986. A native of Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, she obtained her undergraduate degree in social work in 1982 from Loyola University.
Alvarez's experience as an assistant state's attorney provides her with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the office she runs; she has tried about 50 felony jury trials and exponentially more nontrial felony cases. She's held supervisory titles ranging from the chief of staff to the Cook County state's attorney to deputy chief of the Narcotics Bureau.
Despite the fact that she's the state's attorney of the largest county court system in the United States, Alvarez has trouble containing her excitement over trying a new case.
Such a reaction might be expected from a career state's attorney who is just as familiar with the "trenches" as the about 850 assistant state's attorneys she oversees: She's proof that no matter how high you climb in the ranks, the itch for the courtroom never goes away for many prosecutors.
How has the experience been for you overall?
It's been great. I've spent my entire legal career here at the state's attorney's office, so I've grown up here and I love it. But there definitely are some challenges sitting in this seat as opposed to if you're first chair in a courtroom.
What has it been like having the perspective of filling both sets of shoes?
In those days when I was a young assistant saying, "Well I'm doing this because 'downtown' wants me to" and now I'm the downtown. It's a big change, but when you're coming up through the system as an assistant and you're trying cases and in the trenches, you don't really have to think about the budget and all these policy changes. Obviously being up here is much different, and with the economy it's been bad, and it's gonna continue being bad. It's been challenging to fill that role.
What was a key issue for you when stepping into the role of state's attorney?
The first area we focused on when I took over was a reorganization of the office. I eliminated an entire bureau (Public Interest Bureau); so many of the functions we were doing were in duplicate — we were doing it in other areas of the office, and facing the budget that we had, it was better fiscally to eliminate the bureau and reassign those duties to other bureaus.
With personnel changes, once I got that in place, we focused on just trying to implement some of the things that I thought were important just to make this office better: We looked at certain legislation; gun laws that we felt we wanted to pass and we focused on that as well as new initiatives like our Human Trafficking Initiative. What we need to do when we're talking about the budget — because we're not going to get more money from the county board — we needed to be creative and think outside the box as to where we could get some more money to help us. So we focused on looking at our grant monies. We actually received a lot through the stimulus grants and we doubled the amount of grant money we had, so we went from 2008 receiving $9 million in grant monies, we now have $18 million.
That has helped us tremendously, especially with our Human Trafficking Initiative. We were one of only three jurisdictions in the entire country (Boston, California's Alameda County and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation) that got money to do this, so we're really happy with that and it allowed us to put our unit together.
(The second issue) is mortgage fraud — we've been applying for every grant we could apply for and we were able to receive a grant to create a separate mortgage fraud unit, allowing state's attorneys to handle those cases in Community Justice Centers. I opened my fourth (center) last month. That was a promise in my campaign to bring those back. That's my primary focus: Try to do new things without, because we know we're not gonna get the money.
I also wanted to make this office more attractive to other young minority lawyers who sometimes think that they shouldn't be on the prosecution side — they should instead be public defenders. Every minority lawyer in this office will tell you that at some point in their career, they've been asked that question. It's certainly happened to me. You do so much for your community by speaking up for the victims of crime, so we've made a real focus on increasing the number of minorities we have hired in this office: Our last class was 43 percent minority, which is the highest we've ever had.
How do you think you've dealt with ongoing financial issues?
It was a rough couple months just to get to the point where we're at. Obviously our job is public safety, and eliminating assistant state's attorneys, to me, is not a good thing. Losing bodies is really something that infringes on public safety, so we did our best to make sure we weren't going to lose positions. On our administrative side, it was looking pretty grim up until the 11th hour because the union that represents our administrative bureau at the last minute agreed to those furlough days. If they hadn't agreed, it would have caused us to lay off close to 200 people, which would have affected how we operate in every office. It was rough … we lost positions and lost money, but it could have been worse. We just started our next budget process and we'll see what the next couple months bring.
What assistant state's attorney role were you in that gave you the most insight into being the Cook County state's attorney?
I spent almost four years in the Gang Unit prosecuting gang-related homicides. As a trial attorney, that's when I was at the top of my game because I tried so many cases and worked with so many people. Just being a minority (assistant) state's attorney and seeing the types of crime we unfortunately dealt with in our communities — our young people killing each other and destroying their families for no good reason. A lot of that saddened me, angered me, so I think that unit really defined me.
From there I held various supervisory positions. With each supervisor position, you grow in that role because it's much different than being a line assistant. (The Public Integrity Unit) was my first supervisory role and that was a turn from me going to just trying cases and working hand in hand with police to actively looking for corruption. That was a big turning point for me because it provided a different perspective.
Do you have a singular success that you're more proud of than others?
Our Human Trafficking Initiative. The issue of human trafficking … obviously people always think it's just some kind of international thing, like it doesn't happen here. But it does happen here …. it can happen anywhere in this city because Chicago is a transportation hub; a convention hub. It's ripe for this.
We've seen gangs are also getting into human trafficking and mortgage fraud because it's more lucrative; they think it's under the radar and it's less violent … for them, anyway.
As a mother of four kids, the idea of some child being out there at 11, 12 years old and prostituted at that age … they're not doing it willingly, someone is making money off of it. It's a big initiative because the first thing we did was change the law to create the Illinois State Children's Act: It's the most comprehensive law out there. I was in New York last year and they were jealous because we passed the law on the first try and it took them five years to pass something similar called the Safe Harbor Act.
I'm also really proud of restoring those Community Justice Centers. I talked a lot about it during the campaign and we closed them in 2007 because of the budget. But the people in those communities were complaining because they really liked those offices — you could walk in off the street with a question and maybe it's not a criminal matter; maybe it's just to refer them to the appropriate city agency. My assistants out in those offices love it. They help put a better face on their communities.
Do you miss being in the trenches?
That's an easy one: I do! I was in court yesterday just observing and you kind of miss it. I was watching the assistant, thinking, "Say this, say this, say this! I hope he's gonna say this!"
How often do you get to other branches?
I try to spend two days a week at 26th Street (Cook County Criminal Courts Building) and I get to other branches. It's not as often as I'd like, but we try to have meetings with other district branches. Visibility is important: When we went through the budget process, I went out to the districts just to explain to them what we've been through with the county board and what the negotiations were and it was appreciated. People hear things, the rumors start, and I have to tell them, "This is what's gonna happen."
What would you like to see change with the office by the time you go?
We're the second largest (state's attorney office) in the nation, but statutorily we have more responsibility than any other office. That this be the best office there is and I never lose focus as to why we're here: To do justice, speak on behalf of the victim and never lose sight of that. No matter where you are in the office, it's important that you're here for a purpose and maintain the same passion you had on your first day 10 years later.