Nathaniel Roosevelt Howse, Illinois Supreme Court Democratic candidate profile

He is an appellate court judge.

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Appellate Judge Nathaniel Roosevelt Howse, 2020 Illinois Supreme Court Democratic primary election candidate.

Appellate Judge Nathaniel Roosevelt Howse, Illinois Supreme Court Democratic primary candidate.

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Candidate profile

Nathaniel Roosevelt Howse

Running for: Illinois Supreme Court

Occupation: Appellate Court Justice

Other professional experience: Circuit Court Justice, Election Law & Civil Rights Attorney


Campaign website:

Facebook: @JusticeHowseIL

Twitter: @JusticeHowseIL

Instagram: @JusticeHowseIL

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The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent candidates for Illinois Supreme Court in the 1st District that covers Cook County a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues. Nathaniel Roosevelt Howse submitted the following responses:

Tell us why you are qualified to be a Supreme Court justice.

A Supreme Court justice should have a demonstrated history of honesty, integrity, and transparency to even be considered. Once that baseline has been cleared, Supreme Court justices must also display a demonstrated history of judicial effectiveness and bring a valuable perspective to the court. My career as an election and civil rights attorney, as well as my roughly 21 years on the bench as an appellate and circuit court judge, have prepared me to be an effective Supreme Court justice on Day One.

I first started thinking about justice and the law as child, growing up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. While Jim Crow laws had already been declared unconstitutional, that decision had not yet been implemented in Murfreesboro. I attended segregated schools, movies theaters, and felt first-hand the sting of being less-than-equal, which inspired in me a passion to set things right.

My father first inspired me to become a lawyer. He worked during the day to support our family and he went to law school at night at the John Marshall Law School. I remember weekends at our house. My brother and I would do our homework at the kitchen table and my father would study his law books at the dining room table. We were so proud to go to Springfield, Illinois in June 1966 to see him sworn in as an attorney.

I graduated from law school in June 1976 and I was admitted to the bar on October 29, 1976. In my first job after law school, I wrote briefs in criminal appeals, among other duties. I argued my first case before the Illinois Appellate Court within the first year after graduation from law school. Since then I have represented thousands of clients in the trial courts and I have participated in a number of appeals.

In time, I developed my own practice primarily representing clients in civil cases, and in the last few years of my practice before I became a judge I focused on election cases. I have represented clients in cases before every division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Illinois Appellate Court, the Illinois Supreme Court, the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. I had the privilege of arguing before the Illinois Supreme Court in Welch v. Johnson, 147 Ill. 2d 40 (1992).

After I became a lawyer I was reacquainted with another mentor, Justice R. Eugene Pincham. In 1990, Justice Pincham was one of the founders of and a candidate for the Harold Washington Party, a newly-formed African-American political party that sought to field its own candidates in the general election. I helped to successfully represent the Harold Washington Party on a pro bono basis when the Cook County Democratic Party tried to prevent its formation and remove its candidates from the ballot.

Justice Pincham inspired us to use whatever talents and gifts God gave us to help our community and leave things better than we found them. I teamed up with Justice Pincham to file a lawsuit against the City of Chicago on behalf of more than 100 Black and Hispanic women and men who were discriminated against when the City terminated their employment. (Allen v. City of Chicago, 828 F. Supp. 543 (1993).) We were successful in settling the case and getting our clients the justice they deserved.

I was also a member of the team of attorneys led by Justice Pincham who filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of African-American residents of Chicago who were discriminated against in the redistricting of the Chicago Ward map after the 1990 census. (Barnett v. Daley et al., 92 C 1683.) After we filed our lawsuit, the law firm that then employed future President Barack Obama (Minor Barnhill and Davis) filed suit on behalf of the African-American Chicago Aldermen, after which the cases were consolidated by the District Court. I have the high privilege and honor of working on a case with President Barack Obama. (Barnett v. Daley, 32 F. 3d 1196 (1994).)

I was also the lead attorney (on a pro bono basis) representing the Justice Party, an African-American political party, when efforts were made in 1996 by the Cook County Democratic Party to prevent its formation and remove its candidates from the ballot. (King v. Justice Party, 284 Ill. App. 3d 886 (1996).)

I have made presentations to the Chicago Bar Association and Cook County Bar Association on the subject of election law. I served as Chair of the Chicago Bar Association’s Election Law Committee during the 1997-1998 bar year. On June 14, 1996, the Cook County Bar Association awarded me the William R. Ming, Jr. award for my contributions to the cause of Civil Rights.

I was elected as an at-large circuit court judge in November 1998. During my service as a judge I, like all judges, have had trying moments. At those times, I conduct myself as if my two biggest mentors, Dad and Justice Pincham, are sitting in the front row of the courtroom, watching me discharge my duties. I always strive to conduct myself with dignity and to treat lawyers and litigants with respect. My goal is to always conduct myself in a manner that would make my family, friends and community proud of me.

In short, I believe that I am qualified to serve as a Supreme Court justice because:

1) I practiced law for 22 years prior to becoming a judge and during that time I represented thousands of clients in the State and Federal trial and appellate courts including cases that involved complex litigation. See Allen v. City of Chicago, 828 F. Supp. 543 (1993); Barnett v. Daley, 32 F. 3d 1196 (1994); and Welch v. Johnson, 147 Ill. 2d 40 (1992).

2) For more than 10 years I conscientiously served the People of the State of Illinois as a trial judge.

3) For more than 10 years I have effectively and efficiently served as an Appellate Court justice and would continue to do so as a Supreme Court justice.

4) My background and perspective help me better represent and understand underrepresented communities in Illinois.

What two cases have you ruled on as an appellate judge that best reflect your scholarship, judicial philosophy and approach to justice? 

In In re Jamari R., 2017 IL App (1st) 160850, I was faced with competing interests that are both very important to me that could have taken the case in two very different directions, as well as a somewhat obscure legal issue that required a probing analysis of the use of a bedrock legal principle, in addition to some other interesting legal questions, mainly surrounding jurisdiction.

I believe this is a case that reflects my scholarship, judicial philosophy, and approach to justice, because I was able to analyze the legal principle and determine its applicability in a manner that was not common but which embodied the spirit and purpose of the law, which is one of my guiding principles. I was also able to balance the competing interests in a party to achieve the most just outcome for the party most affected by the decision, which in that case was a minor child. There was also an issue of what could be perceived as cultural insensitivity in that case, which for me reinforced the importance of a diverse judiciary to recognize these concerns and to mitigate their impact.

That case involved a termination of a father’s parental rights. The father had been incarcerated and never had a relationship with his child, although the record reflected that he wanted one. The child was in foster care and doing well, and the father only wanted what was best for his son. The trial court did terminate the father’s rights and an appeal was taken.

Before getting to that point, when the trial court was giving the required notices, there seemed to be a great deal of confusion regarding the spelling of the parties’ names and their correct names. That situation reminded me of the difficulty that many ethnic groups must face and how it must make them feel when the system cannot get something so personal to them as their name right. I do not attribute any blame or lack of sensitivity or any bias to the hardworking people on this case; but this is one way in which the justice system interacts with people where we have an opportunity to build trust, which is an indispensable component of any authority the court has, or to destroy it.

When I got the case, the procedural matters that were appealed could have resulted in prolonging the case. One of my core philosophies is that it is more important to get it right than to do it fast. I will never diminish anyone’s due process rights in the name of expediency. However, in this case there was another fundamental legal principle that said even with that in mind, justice sometimes requires that proceedings come to an end. What I wrote in that case was that consideration of that legal principle was “indispensable to a just resolution” because of the superior interests of the child.

I analyzed the legal principle and balanced them against all of the competing interests and ultimately decided that the father’s quest had to be cut off so that the child, who was thriving in his new home, could move on with his life.

I also believe that my opinion in People v. Schuit, 2016 IL App (1st) 150312 is representative of my scholarship and approach to justice. The case involved a controversial subject in the law and it had a large amount of very technical evidence that had to be carefully considered in the context of both the general legal questions involved and whether or not the defendant was guilty. The case sadly involved the death of a newborn child and like many of those situations, the issues surrounded what is commonly referred to as Shaken Baby Syndrome. This has become a controversial subject because the law and science have begun to question Shaken Baby Syndrome’s existence. There is a rule in the law that scientific evidence has to be accepted as reliable by the relevant scientific community to be admitted in a trial. This is called the Frye test. Even though courts had been looking at evidence of this syndrome for years, I was called upon to reexamine this test in the light of new scientific evidence, which I did.

In the Schuit case I conducted an in-depth analysis of the legal principles involved and other cases applying those legal principles as well as an examination of all of the scientific medical testimony to determine whether there had been an evolution of the law or the application of the law in cases similar to this one. This reflects my scholarly approach to the law, that the court must draw from the facts and the entire body of law to fully understand both the letter and spirit of the law and maintain that as its guiding principle. Justice is individual and the law is always evolving. That has been and will continue to be my philosophy as a judge.

These cases are always difficult because of their horrendous nature—in this case a father convicted of causing the death of his infant son—and there is no direct evidence of guilt. That is why in this case, like in every case I decide, you can see from the opinion that I have very carefully considered all of the evidence to make sure the conviction was proper. This is also indicative of my approach as a judge. The parties must know that their positions have been given full and fair consideration in light of all of the evidence and that the court has examined the proceedings to ensure they were fair. The way that we do this is in how we structure and prepare out decisions in those cases. In the Schuit case, even though there was voluminous scientific evidence and multiple lengthy explanations of case law that had examined the issues, I believe that any party reading my opinion would come away not only with an understanding of what the law is, and more importantly why the law is that way and what it means, but also why the law requires the outcome in that particular case. This is my goal with every opinion that I write.

Ultimately in this case I concluded that the State had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the father had caused his baby’s death by shaking him. That is the difficult decision judges must make and I believe this case as well as In re Jamari R. represent my doing so in a way that is academically thorough while remaining conscientious of the harm to the individuals involved.

In what way would you fill circuit court bench vacancies? 

Filling vacancies on the circuit court is one of the most important functions of a Supreme Court justice. Currently, many people believe that the system is rigged and the application process is just for show. The belief is, the person who is going to be appointed is predetermined, usually based on some kind of cronyism. I will put an end to that.

If I am elected to serve as a Supreme Court justice and I am called to fill a vacancy in the circuit court, I will have a genuine, transparent, and fair application and selection process. In making selections, that qualifications of the applicant will be the most important factor. The qualities I look for that I believe will make someone a good judge include a broad range of legal experience and a demonstration of the ability to analyze legal questions in depth. Trial experience is valuable; however, I do not believe that extensive trial experience is the only important quality for a potential judge to have. Most decisions are made based on written pleadings without ever going to trial, and the ability to understand the parties’ arguments, analyze the law, fairly apply the law to the admissible facts, and clearly communicate a decision and the reasons for that decision is the most important quality a judge should possess.

I will also strongly consider the importance of maintaining a diverse judiciary in making judicial appointments. The people’s confidence in the decisions of the judiciary is weakened when they feel they are not being heard or their personal life experiences and views are not being given any consideration. As a judge, I recognize how my life experience helps me to make better informed and more fair decisions. These feelings arise when the public sees a judiciary that does not look like themselves. A lack of diversity on the bench weakens the court’s authority and the quality of its decision making. Therefore, I will always consider the current makeup of the circuit court and areas in which it needs to improve to reflect the full range of cultures, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, backgrounds, and experiences of the people of Cook County.

What would you do to improve the way the Supreme Court administers the state’s entire legal system? Will you ask the Legislature for more money and what would you use it for?

There are several core changes that I would make, beginning with addressing racial disparities in sentencing. The implementation of better sentencing guidelines that do not include mandatory minimums would create a more level playing field for defendants, regardless of race or ethnic background.

I believe that justice delayed is justice denied. As an Appellate Court justice, I have zero cases on backlog and as a past Chair of the Appellate Court Executive Committee I implemented policies that require a judge to submit a written explanation for all cases that have been on their desk for six months or longer. I would continue this policy as a Supreme Court justice, creating rules and policies requiring judges to respect a defendant’s right to a speedy trial and all litigants’ right to efficient justice. Too often, individuals are kept in jail or awaiting payment for damages for months unnecessarily.

Finally, I would change the way that Illinois courts are funded and support an end to cash bail. Right now, roughly 90 different court costs can be levied against a defendant in addition to any fines for their offense. For low-income people, these costs can be prohibitively high, effectively criminalizing poverty as those unable to pay their court costs face additional penalties beyond the crime for which they were convicted. Funding courts based on convictions and court costs creates a perverse incentive system that encourages more guilty verdicts.

Given concerns around the state’s finances, asking for more money isn’t a practical solution. Smart policies and guidelines can improve our courts without imposing large costs. Given that filings have been down, our courts should be able to streamline their budgets and not rely on the most vulnerable individuals and families to provide funding.

Statewide, court filings are down 30%. At some point, do we need fewer judges? And are judges properly deployed now to where they are most needed? Please explain.

I am not opposed to adjusting the total number of judges to fit the state’s needs, but I don’t believe this is the right time to do so. While court filings are down, judgements still are not issued as quickly as they should be. I don’t believe the courts need to seek additional funding for more judges, but I am concerned that a reduction in the current number of judges would create more case backlog and delay justice for many.

In each term, the Supreme Court receives hundreds of petitions for leave to appeal. What is your guiding philosophy as to which cases the court should decide to hear?

Illinois Supreme Court Rules provide some guidance on the general character of the reasons that will be considered in deciding whether a petition for leave to appeal will be granted. Those reasons include the general importance of the question presented; the existence of a conflict between the decision sought to be reviewed and a decision of the Supreme Court, or of another division of the Appellate Court; the need for the exercise of the Supreme Court’s supervisory authority; and the final or interlocutory character of the judgment sought to be reviewed. I will give considerable weight to these considerations, especially the existence of a conflict between the decision sought to be reviewed and a decision of the Supreme Court, or of another division of the Appellate Court; the need for the exercise of the Supreme Court’s supervisory authority. I believe those considerations are of paramount importance because it is those types of conflicts in decision-making that give rise to unequal justice, which is something the Supreme Court must vigilantly guard against.

That rule also states that these enumerated reasons are not the full measure of the court’s discretion, and I fully agree with that principle. Although the Supreme Court should not be affected by political considerations in its decision making, the Supreme Court does not and cannot operate in a vacuum. There may be a call to answer a question of great societal importance where a final, clear, authoritative statement of the law is needed for the good of society. I will balance such concerns with the recognition that issues also need to make their way through the appellate court for a fleshing out of all of the available considerations before the Supreme Court makes a final determination.

The Illinois Reform Commission has recommended a pilot program for public financing of judicial elections. Should judicial elections be publicly financed, and why or why not?

Yes, I support the pilot program. Reducing the influence of big-money contributions to judicial campaigns is vital and should have happened a long time ago. It’s a problem in politics generally, but particularly in judicial races, where impartiality and fairness are core principles.

Public financing is an intriguing alternative that could alleviate the problem, but it needs to be tested before being deployed on a large-scale basis. It’s clear that the current system favors connected insiders and wealthy individuals, creating a barrier to those coming from everyday backgrounds.

The Illinois Supreme Court currently is overwhelmingly white. Given that, how important is the issue of diversity in this specific election?

Depending on the outcome of this election, Illinois could have a Supreme Court without a single person of color on the bench. That is big step backwards and a real problem when it comes to perspective and a judiciary that reflects the diversity of our state.

Representation matters. Particularly when our justice system is plagued with allegations of racial bias regarding sentencing and convictions, it’s vital that the Supreme Court reflect the diversity of Illinois.

Growing up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee under the vestiges of Jim Crow and attending segregated schools, I have distinct memories of codified injustice that stay with me to this day.

Upon graduating with a Master’s Degree, the only job my father could find was as a janitor working the graveyard shift at a local bomb factory. My parents made the decision to seek better opportunities for our family and moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration that took place in the late 20th century, realizing the American Dream and becoming part of the middle class. This experience has instilled in me a deep personal understanding of the impact of unequal application of the law and an abiding compassion for underdogs—people that aren’t treated fairly or equitably by the law and society.

While I believe my perspective is unique among candidates in this race, it’s far from unique across Illinois and perspectives like it should be represented on our state’s highest court.

Many cases now being addressed by appellate courts have to do with gun possession, in part because of the state’s new concealed carry law. We also anticipate an increase in cannabis-related cases now that, as of Jan. 1, recreational marijuana will be legal but highly regulated. In light of this, do you foresee the Supreme Court being asked to redefine search-and-seizure protections? What is your view on the current restrictions on search-and-seizure?

Search and seizure law is well-developed. I believe that problems arise from the failure to follow the letter and spirit of the law. That is why always listening to and following not only the strict letter of the law but the spirit of the law—what it is intended to protect, accomplish, or remedy—is my guiding judicial philosophy. When these cases come before the court, judges should not limit themselves to hyper-technical analyses of whether a particular search or seizure can be made to squeeze into an exception or fit under a rule. The court should examine these questions holistically to get to the heart of the matter which is whether individual protections have been violated.

Like any other law, search and seizure law must and will evolve. One issue that the court will have to address is police officers’ reliance on the odor of cannabis as a basis for further investigation. There are some instances where this may remain proper, such as where minors are involved, and others where it will not. Although I cannot speak specifically on how that question should be resolved, I do believe that the issue should first be explored through our appellate courts, and when a body of law and facts have been developed in this area, the Supreme Court should examine the development of that law to make a definitive pronouncement of the law that adheres to the spirit of search and seizure protections in an evolving society.

You’re a lawyer, right? So tell us. What’s the best movie, TV or book ever set inside a courtroom? 

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite court story. It explores the intersection between justice, race, mob mentality, violence, and redemption in a way no other story does. Scout’s evolution as a character demonstrates the importance of perspective and how it can change and grow with life experience.

There is a line that speaks to how Atticus thinks he won’t win the trial, but he says something to the effect of “we stand a good chance on appeal.” That line really captures a lot about the way our system works, what some of the weaknesses are, and the importance of the work we do on the bench for the people of Illinois.

What historical figure from Illinois, other than Abraham Lincoln (because everybody’s big on Abe), do you most admire or draw inspiration from? Please explain.

Harold Washington. He worked against incredible odds without falter just to try to do what he thought was right and best for his community.

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