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Trail-blazing former Justice Charles Freeman dead at 86: ‘The Illinois courts lost a giant’

Justice Freeman made history throughout his legal career. He is the only African American ever elected to the state Supreme Court. In 1997, he ascended to the position of chief justice — again the first and only African American to do so.

Illinois state Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Freeman in 2000.
Illinois state Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Freeman in 2000.
John H. White/Sun-Times file

Former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Freeman, the first African American to serve on the state’s highest bench, died Monday. He was 86.

In his more than four decades as a jurist, Justice Freeman helped write and shape history – in his legal opinions, his pioneering achievements and in the generation of other African American lawyers he guided to the bench.

Chief Justice Anne M. Burke called Justice Freeman a close friend and mentor.

“He was a gentleman and a truly gracious individual,” Burke said in a statement. “I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone. He was a consensus builder and treated everyone equally and with respect.”

Justice Freeman first won election to the Cook County Circuit Court in 1976 and served for 10 years, according to a statement from the Illinois Supreme Court.

During that tenure, he made history — as he would throughout his legal career.

He became the first African American to swear in a Chicago mayor, administering the oath of office in 1983 to Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor.

Justice Freeman and Washington were longtime friends and shared a law office for several years.

Cook County Circuit Judge Charles E. Freeman swears in Harold Washington as the mayor of Chicago. File Photo.
Cook County Circuit Judge Charles E. Freeman swears in Harold Washington as the mayor of Chicago in 1983. Outgoing Mayor Jane Byrne is at right File Photo.
Keith Hale/Chicago Sun-Times.

In 1986, Justice Freeman was elected to the first district appellate court and also served as a presiding judge for the third division before being elected to the Supreme Court in 1990 to fill the vacancy of Seymour Simon.

He is the only African American ever elected to the state Supreme Court.

In 1997, the Chicago Democrat ascended to the position of chief justice — again the first and only African American to do so.

Justice Freeman took the reins of the Illinois state Supreme Court when it was mired in controversy.

He succeeded Chief Justice James Heiple, a Peoria Republican who stepped down from the court’s top post in 1997 as the Illinois House was preparing to impeach him. Heiple had been censured by the Illinois Courts Commission for flashing his court badge to avoid speeding tickets, behavior described as “particularly damaging to the integrity of the court system.”

The elevation of Justice Freeman, a staunch Heiple critic, was seen as restoring calm to the state’s top bench.

Justice Charles Freeman, right, is sworn in with former Chicago Mayor Michael A. Bilandic, center, and James D. Heiple in 1990.
Justice Charles Freeman, right, is sworn in with two other newcomers to the state’s highest court, former Chicago Mayor Michael A. Bilandic, center, and James D. Heiple in 1990.
Amanda Alcock/Sun-Times.

”I think right now we need to stabilize things,” Freeman said at the time. “The public’s perception of the court will change. I think it reached an all-time low point recently because of a series of events that the court could not impact on. I hope to have smooth sailing.”

The opinion Justice Freeman is perhaps best known for is the majority opinion he wrote in 1994 for the reversal of the conviction of Rolando Cruz in the murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. That decision helped pave the way for Cruz’s freedom.

As for being named the court’s first black chief justice, Justice Freeman said, “I’m an African American who now has become chief judge; I’m not an African-American chief justice. I have no different perception on what course I would take because of my heritage.”

Former statee Suprme Court Justice Charles Freeman in 1997
Former statee Suprme Court Justice Charles Freeman in 1997
AP file

He also made a point of pulling others up with him.

Appellate Justice Cynthia Cobbs, who is running to fill the vacancy created when Justice Freeman retired from the court, worked with the justice, clerking for him from 1989 to 1997. She called him her mentor.

“He was really my strongest advocate, he was a great friend, and he had so much to do with guiding my career and next steps,” Cobbs said. “He was my go-to judge, even in times when I needed direction about my political career, he was there for me. … There are not words, my heart is so heavy.”

Justice Freeman called Cobbs “CC.” Not one to hold his powerful position over others, Justice Freeman never used his title when communicating with Cobbs. He was always just “Freeman” or went by his initials, “CEF.”

State Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Freeman in 2003.
State Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Freeman addresses freshman law students on ethics and professionalism at John Marshall Law School in 2003.
Keith Hale/Sun-Times

“I think that the Illinois courts lost a giant,” Cobbs said. “He was a man who cared deeply about the courts and the administration of justice and a man who really put his whole heart and soul into what he thought was best to make the judiciary shine, and did a lot to help minority judges and lawyers to make the bench diverse so that individuals who walked into courtrooms would see someone who looked like him and them.”

Justice Freeman appointed 11 African Americans and nine Jewish lawyers to the bench, according to the state’s Supreme Court.

Appellate Justice Nathaniel Howse Jr., who is also running for the seat Justice Freeman held, said that history of appointing African Americans helped many think “there was a possibility to become a judge.

“When you compare the people appointed by Freeman as compared to other justices, it’s clear that that was the path,” Howse said. “Now there are some who sprinkle in a few minorities but he was the primary person appointing minorities and Jews.”

Justice Freeman served on the top court for 28 years, from 1990 to 2018. When he retired, he selected current Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. to serve out the rest of his term on the bench.

Illinois Appellate Justices Cynthia Cobbs, left, and Nathaniel Roosevelt Howse, center, and Illinois Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr.
Illinois Appellate Justices Cynthia Cobbs, left, and Nathaniel Roosevelt Howse, center, and Illinois Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Justice Freeman had earlier appointed Neville a Circuit Court judge in 1999 and an appellate justice in 2004. Neville noted that 11 of the 16 African Americans who have served on the First District Appellate Court since 1990 were appointed by Justice Freeman.

“While Justice Freeman was a great jurist, he did more than any other Supreme Court Justice to diversify the Illinois courts,” Neville said in a statement. “Justice Freeman’s appointments to the Circuit Court far exceed his appellate court appointments.”

For James Montgomery Sr., the corporation counsel under Washington, Justice Freeman’s passing was a “shock.” The two had known each other since the ‘60s. The former justice was “an outstanding lawyer and judge and his period on the Illinois Supreme Court was marked with a lot of decisions that were important and well reasoned,” Montgomery said.

“He was a first class guy,” Montgomery said, adding that Freeman’s death is “a great loss to the bar and to our community.”

Justice Charles E. Freeman talks to reporters in 2004.
Justice Charles E. Freeman talks to reporters after playing the role of chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in a re-enactment of the Brown vs Board of Education case at Chicago State University in 2004.
Brian Jackson/Sun-Times file

Calling Justice Freeman “a giant,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said the trail-blazing jurist called to congratulate her when she became the first African American woman elected to the top county prosecutor’s office four years ago.

“He graciously reminded me of the importance of being a ‘first,’ and to never forget the responsibility to clear a path for those who come next,” Foxx said in a statement. “I will always remember his words, his integrity, and his many contributions to our justice system and history.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said it as an honor to know Justice Freeman.

“He broke many barriers as a Supreme Court Justice — especially, given how long he served,” she said. “Even, today, 24 states still have all white jurists on their Supreme Court bench. As an intellectual resource, Justice Freeman’s death is a major loss for the county, state and country.”

The Illinois Supreme Court in 2011, left to right,  Justice Anne M. Burke; Justice Rita B. Garman; Justice Charles E. Freeman; then-Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride; Justice Robert R. Thomas; Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier and Justice Mary Jane Theis.
The Illinois Supreme Court in 2011, left to right, Justice Anne M. Burke; Justice Rita B. Garman; Justice Charles E. Freeman; then-Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride; Justice Robert R. Thomas; Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier and Justice Mary Jane Theis.
Sun-Times files

Justice Freeman was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1933, the descendant of enslaved people freed by Quakers before the Civil War.

He was a college friend of Douglas Wilder’s, who became Virginia governor in 1989, the nation’s first elected black governor. The former justice began his political career in Chicago, working as a precinct worker for the late Rep. Ralph H. Metcalfe.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Virginia Union University in 1954, Justice Freeman came west, attending the John Marshall Law School, where he earned his law degree in 1962.

He is survived by his son, Kevin and daughter-in-law Cami Freeman, two grandchildren, as well as his brother James Freeman in Richmond, Virginia, according to the state Supreme Court’s statement. The Illinois Supreme Court plans to host a Chicago memorial service, but it is still working out the details.