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Tom Durkin: Choice of another white man for U.S. attorney raises questions about selection process


*** KEYWORDS: COOK COUNTY COURTS BUILDING, TUESDAY, CHICAGO, JEFFERSON TAP, POLICE OFFICERS, VERDICT *** 04-28-09 Cook County Courts Building, 26th and California, Chicago - Police officer Paul Powers, right, listens as attorney Lori Lightfoot describes her thoughts on the verdict at the Cook County Courts building. John J. Kim ~ Sun-Times

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Updated: April 25, 2013 6:46AM

Last week’s press leak that the Obama administration has settled on Zach Fardon as its choice to replace Patrick Fitzgerald as the next U.S. attorney in Chicago raises larger questions — not about Fardon, but about those in the selection process who made the decision to continue the uninterrupted 158-year run of white male U.S. attorneys by not nominating the other finalist, Lori Lightfoot, a well qualified African-American woman

Chicago has any number of lawyers who were eminently qualified to fill the position Sen. Peter Fitzgerald unnecessarily felt compelled to fill with an outsider in his 2001 selection of Patrick Fitzgerald. The candidates who cleared Sen. Dick Durbin’s screening committee this time comprised as impressive a list of lawyers as could be found anywhere in the country.

Of the four finalists named in December, each was a former federal prosecutor with established credentials. Any one of the four would have been a good choice to fill Patrick Fitzgerald’s big, but not irreplaceable, shoes. So we have known for some time now that the office would remain in good hands.

But that is hardly the only issue. Now, 21 of the country’s 93 U.S. attorneys are women. The glass ceiling has long been broken in many of the major metropolitan U.S. attorney’s offices, such as New York City, Boston, Detroit, San Francisco and San Diego. Nor has this breakthrough been limited to traditionally blue states. Women have made it in such red states as Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska, Texas and Arizona.

This is where the Obama administration’s pass on Lightfoot becomes unsettling and raises far bigger questions than simply whether Fardon is a highly qualified choice — which he most certainly is. How it is that from the countless talented female lawyers in Chicago, including the impressive number of talented women who have served as assistant U.S. attorneys, not one has ever been able to break through Chicago’s patriarchal glass ceiling?

The spurning of Lightfoot unfortunately raises as well the ugly specter of race in a city that for all its diversity seems unable to surmount in its community relations and politics. The legal community in this town should have been forced to concede a long time ago that there are many qualified African-American lawyers, including a number of former and present African-American assistant U.S. attorneys — a number of whom are women — who merited a shot at the top job long before now. This is why lawyers who practice every day in the federal building and care about things like equality and the appearance of fairness — not incidental matters for a courthouse that sends a disproportionately large number of African Americans and minorities to prison — thought for sure the time had finally come for both an African American and a female in the appointment of Lightfoot.

Nor is it simply appearances at stake here. Forty years into the war on drugs, it continues mindlessly with its draconian sentences that most often disproportionately impact our minority communities. Yet the Chicago Police publicly wonders why it gets no inner-city neighborhood cooperation against the gangs that control the unabated flow of drugs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently called for the next U.S. attorney to focus more on drugs and guns and less on corruption. That request ignores many law enforcement observations that the very increase in the alarming gang-related homicide rates is an unintended consequence of past federal strategy that dismantled the major gangs, splintering them into smaller, less disciplined and more violent factions.

The solution will never be simply more incarceration or more effective law enforcement. It will require leadership that can overcome the fear, suspicion and mistrust that the war on drugs has wrought minority communities.

For that purpose, diversity might well signal the very commonality needed for meaningful dialogue and engagement.

Tom Durkin, a Chicago lawyer, is a former assistant U.S. attorney.

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