Cynthia Y. Cobbs
Running for: Illinois Supreme Court
Occupation: Appellate Court Judge (Justice), First Judicial District
Other professional experience: Clinical Social Worker; Appellate Court Research Attorney; Appellate Court Judicial Law Clerk; Supreme Court Senior Judicial Law Clerk; Senior Attorney - Supreme Court/Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (“AOIC); Chief Legal Counsel - Supreme Court /AOIC; Director of the Illinois Courts; Circuit Court Judge
Education: Bachelor of Arts; Master of Social Work (Clinical); Juris Doctor
Campaign website: www.justicecobbs.org
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. Cynthia Y. Cobbs submitted the following responses:
Tell us why you are qualified to be a Supreme Court justice.
The duties of the Illinois Supreme Court, as defined by the Illinois Constitution, are basically two-fold, to dispose of cases accepted by the Court on petition for leave to appeal and to supervise and administer the Illinois Courts. I have been employed at every level of the Illinois Court system.
For more than eight years, I served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Charles E. Freeman, first on the Appellate Court and then, for more than seven years, on the Illinois Supreme Court. As a judicial law clerk, I worked collaboratively with the Justice in reviewing cases filed on appeal for critical errors made by trial lawyers in presenting their cases at trial and judges in ruling on pleadings, the admissibility of evidence and final rulings at the trial court level; researched the relevant statutes and case-law; and, drafted the written disposition for the Justice’s consideration. Cases on appeal covered a myriad issues, including civil, criminal, juvenile and administrative law, and required knowledge of both Illinois procedural and substantive law.
As the Senior Judicial Law Clerk to Justice Freeman at the Supreme Court level, I worked collaboratively with the Justice in reviewing some of the most complex issues presented to the Supreme Court for disposition, including cases of first impression, cases which required constitutional analysis, as well as those cases in which there was a conflict in interpreting and applying the law among the courts throughout the state. Additionally, I assisted the Justice in reviewing all motions presented for his disposition, as well as reviewed and made recommendations to him on the disposition of petitions for leave to appeal and petitions for rehearing in cases previously decided by the Court.
My work as a judicial law clerk, at both the Appellate Court and Supreme Court levels provided the foundation for my work as a Circuit Court judge and now, as an Appellate Court justice. As a Circuit Court judge I presided over and disposed of cases in the traffic division, including misdemeanors and the more serious traffic offenses, such as DUIs; debtor/creditor law cases, forcible entry and detainer (eviction), and civil jury trials Work as a judge requires the ability to research, construe and properly apply the law, both procedural and substantive, to the facts presented in every case.
As an Appellate Court justice, I review cases for critical errors made by trial lawyers and judges in the trial court and issue a written disposition in those cases. Annually, each Appellate Court judge is randomly assigned approximately ninety (90) cases for his/her written disposition. The computerized assignment is managed by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. During my tenure on the court, I have produced the majority disposition in cases involving criminal, civil, juvenile and administrative issues. I have also served as the presiding justice, a member of the court’s Executive Committee and currently as a member of the court’s Settlement Committee.
My vast work experience in the review and disposition of cases, at the trial court, appellate court and the supreme court levels has prepared me to engage in the work of reviewing cases accepted by the Supreme Court for final disposition. Additionally, I have experience in the administration and supervision of the Illinois Courts. In 2002, I was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to serve as the Director of the Illinois Courts.
For nine and a half years, I worked collaboratively with the seven Supreme Court justices in overseeing the Illinois Courts, engaging in every aspect of the Court’s administrative work, including, but not limited to, developing and administering the Court’s then nearly $300 million dollar annual budget, overseeing the delivery of probation services throughout the state, developing and overseeing the Court’s first policies on e-filing and e-access; developing performance and accountability standards for Illinois judges; overseeing the Judicial Performance and Evaluation Program for judges; overseeing the development and delivery of judicial education for Illinois judges; serving as ex-officio member of the Court’s several committees, including Committees of the Illinois Judicial Conference and the Legislative Committee; serving as Secretary to the Supreme Court’s Rules Committee, the Illinois Court’s Commission and the Conference of Chief Circuit Court Judges. Additionally, as Director, I administered Supreme Court Rule 39 (Appointment of Associate Judges); Supreme Court Rule 711 (Temporary Licensing of Senior Law Students) and Supreme Court Rule 99 (Mandatory Arbitration). I also drafted the rules of procedure for the Illinois Court’s Commission, as well as the enabling legislation for the creation of the Supreme Court’s Historic Preservation Commission.
As a judge, I have continued to work with the Supreme Court in its administrative role. I previously served on the Court’s Committee on Judicial Performance and Evaluation Committee, the Committee on Civil Jury Instructions, the Judicial Conference Committees on Alternative Dispute Resolution and Juvenile Justice Issues and the Committee on Judicial Conduct (now dissolved). Currently, I serve as a member of the Supreme Court’s Rules Committee and one of six Trustees on the Supreme Court Judicial College Board.
What two cases have you ruled on as an appellate judge that best reflect your scholarship, judicial philosophy and approach to justice?
People v. Robert Butler, 2015 IL App (1st) 131870
Gadja v. Steel Solutions Firm Inc., 2015 IL App (1st) 142219
In what way would you fill circuit court bench vacancies?
I would seek to rely on the review and evaluation by the Chicago Bar Association and the Alliance of Bar Associations as a factor in vetting judicial candidates. I would additionally appoint a committee (with rotating terms), comprised of retired members of the bench, laypersons and law professors, to review a candidate’s application, and all supplemental materials and, to conduct a preliminary assessment of the candidate’s qualifications, temperament and demeanor. I would subsequently meet with all candidates for a candid discussion of bar evaluations and the Committee’s assessment.
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?
Section 17 of the Illinois Constitution’s Judicial Article mandates the creation of a Judicial Conference. Pursuant to the constitution, Supreme Court Rule 41 created the Illinois Judicial Conference to consider the work of the Courts and to suggest improvements in the administration of justice and to make recommendations for the improvement of the courts. The Conference, which was most recently revamped in 2018, has been reformatted and has engaged in strategic planning to improve the administration of justice in the state. A step in the right direction has been the creation of two critical bodies: the Commission on Access to Justice and the Supreme Court Judicial College. Both entities have as foundational bases diversity, access to justice, and procedural fairness. The collaboration and coordination of efforts under the Conference should identify gaps or voids in the administration of our legal system, as well as viable solutions.
During my tenure as Director of the Illinois Courts, the Supreme Court’s annual budget was less than one percent of the entire state’s budget. One of the major components of the Court’s budget was allocated for the delivery of probation services, which was historically underfunded. As a member of the Court, I would recommend to the Chief Justice and to the Director of the Illinois Courts that adequate funding be requested for full funding of adult and juvenile probation services throughout the state, as well as for funding of the Court’s newly created Judicial College, which seeks to provide continuing and comprehensive education for all of the court systems’ justice partners (judges, clerks of court, law clerks, probation officers, trial court administrators, to and guardians ad litem).
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.
The number of judges statewide is statutorily determined and is based in large part on population, as opposed to case filings. In 2010, the Census required a reduction in the number of some associate judge positions. The 2020 Census may yield similar results. It is conceivable that the legislature would consider the number of case filings in determining any amendments to the statutory allocation of judges. That said, although the number of case filings is quantifiable, the complexity of cases filed in our courts is not. A sufficient number of judges to move cases efficiently through the system is essential.
In each judicial circuit, direct administrative oversight of the circuit court is vested in the Chief Circuit Judge whose task is to ensure adequate judicial coverage in judicial districts and divisions of the court. In Cook County, which is the state’s largest judicial circuit, the Chief Judge is assisted in that task by presiding and supervising judges. Deployment or assignment of judges must necessarily factor in the levels of experience of judges as well as the volume of cases in the various districts and divisions. Some divisions of the Circuit Court of Cook County engage in performance measures for the division, a tool which reflects the length of time a case remains pending. The use of performance measures throughout the circuit court could potentially identify areas of unaddressed need and thereby aid in ensuring adequate judicial coverage throughout the court.
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?
It is often said the the Appellate Court is the court of last review. That is so because every unsuccessful litigant may appeal to the Appellate Court as a matter of right. There is a substantial body of law which informs many of the decisions rendered in the Appellate Court. However, at the Supreme Court level, for those cases in which the law is unsettled, unclear, in conflict, presents a constitutional question, or for which errors at the trial court level were so prejudicial as to deprive the litigant of a just result, I would vote to grant the petition.
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?
Judges are prohibited from requesting contributions to support their judicial campaign. Yet fundraising is a necessary component of campaigning for any elective office. Public financing might seem the easy solution. However, the larger issue is the level of funding necessary to run a credible campaign. Taxing the public to fund campaigns might have undesirable consequences, especially if not all candidates are truly viable, yet run, or if a candidate seeks at first to campaign and subsequently withdraws.
The Illinois Supreme Court currently is overwhelmingly white. Given that, how important is the issue of diversity in this specific election?
In Illinois, we have neither term limits nor mandatory retirement for judges. Vacancies on our Supreme Court occur with little frequency. The first and only African American Supreme Court justice elected to the Court, Justice Charles E. Freeman, remained in the position for more than 27 years. Diversity bears a correlation to public confidence in our courts. The constitution provides for a total of three Supreme Court justices to serve in Cook County. Only one vacancy currently exists. With one of the elected Cook County justices having been retained in 2018 for a 10 year term and another who is eligible for retention in 2020, it is highly unlikely that another vacancy in Cook County will occur soon. Accordingly, it is critical that the Cook County voter give thoughtful consideration to ensuring diversity on the Court in this election cycle.
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?
Whenever there are new laws which either do or potentially impact a citizen’s privacy interests, the Supreme Court may ultimately be presented with a question on the bounds of search and seizure. The Court’s disposition will necessarily turn on the facts of the particular case, its review of the Illinois and U.S. constitutional protections and stare decisis. That said, consistent with the Code of Judicial Conduct, I reserve any comment on “the current restrictions on search-and-seizure” which could conceivably be misconstrued as taking a position on a legal issue which either is or may be presented to the Court for disposition.
You’re a lawyer, right? So tell us. What’s the best movie, TV or book ever set inside a courtroom?
”Runaway Jury,” starring Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and John Cusak
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.
Ms. Ida Platt. Ms. Platt was the first African American woman to be admitted to practice law in Illinois in 1894 and graduated from my law school alma matter, Chicago Kent. Being the first at anything is hugely significant to whomever attains that distinction. However, the true value is in the inspiration that being the first provides to individuals who are similarly situated. In 2002, I was the first woman and the first African American appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to serve as the Director of the Illinois Courts. It was an honor for me, but also an opportunity for those who would seek to follow in my path. As a first generation lawyer and judge, I benefited from Ms. Platt’s “firsts.” Ms. Platt, and other trailblazers like her, showed me so much of what was possible. In 2019, I was honored to receive the Ida Platt Award presented by the Chicago Kent Black Law Students Association.