Neville looks poised to hold Illinois Supreme Court seat, but Reyes makes strong challenge

A campaign dominated by questions of diversity did not have a clear winner late Tuesday evening.

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Appellate Justice Jesse G. Reyes making calls on election day, Tuesday March 17, 2020.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Illinois Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. looked poised to hold the seat on the high court he inherited from the late Justice Charles E. Freeman, but a strong challenge from Appellate Court Justice Jesse Reyes meant there was no clear winner in the race late Tuesday.

Still, the pair of minority candidates led at the end of a campaign dominated by questions of diversity after the death of Freeman, the first African American ever elected to the state Supreme Court. Neville is African American, and Reyes would be the first Hispanic justice on the state’s Supreme Court.

The race also featured four additional appellate court justices — Cynthia Cobbs, Sheldon Harris, Nathaniel Howse and Margaret Stanton McBride — as well as lawyer Daniel Epstein.

With 92 percent of precincts reporting, Neville led with 24.4 percent of the vote. Reyes had 21.3 percent, Harris had 16.1 percent, McBride had 12.7 percent, Cobbs had 12.9 percent, Epstein had 7.8 percent, and Howse had 4.8 percent.

Worries about the coronavirus limited some campaigns’ election-night gatherings, though. Xavier Nogueras of BOCA Media Group worked for the Reyes campaign. And after 15 years of such work in Chicago, Nogueras said Tuesday night was “very different for me.”

The Reyes campaign had hoped to celebrate victory with hundreds of people in a ballroom at the Hotel Allegro in the Loop. Three weeks ago, Nogueras said the campaign decided to downgrade to a suite. By Tuesday evening, he said he was lugging a 32-inch television to a makeshift campaign office where only Reyes’ family and staff planned to gather.

Epstein told the Sun-Times he never got around to planning an election-night party. Given the outbreak, he ultimately decided to watch election results from home or his campaign headquarters.

McBride’s plans did not change, though. Pete Giangreco, a consultant for her campaign, said the justice planned to stick with tradition — and stay home on election night.

“That’s her lucky charm,” he said.

The seven sought to fill the seat of Justice Freeman. He served on the top court for 28 years, from 1990 to 2018. Neville was appointed to his seat when Freeman retired. His death earlier this month prompted some of the candidates to share fond memories of him. Cobbs clerked for Freeman from 1989 to 1997, and she called him a mentor.

Howse said Freeman’s history of appointing African American lawyers to the bench helped many think “there was a possibility to become a judge.” And Neville said Freeman “did more than any other Supreme Court Justice to diversify the Illinois courts.”

Questions about diversity on the bench became central to the campaign. One poll put the three black candidates for the seat — Neville, Howse and Cobbs — behind Epstein, Harris, Reyes and McBride. Epstein, Harris and McBride are white. Epstein’s campaign commissioned the poll.

McBride has said that, as a woman, she would represent a much-needed aspect of diversity. Harris has said, “I don’t believe that we need a black person on the Supreme Court to show that we’re diverse.”

“The question is, how is that person — white, green, whatever — what is that person doing with the lower court to expand diversity,” Harris said.

Neville has pointed to his “highly qualified” ratings from multiple bar associations and the opinions he’s already handed down from his year and a half on the state’s highest bench as reasons why he deserves another term.

In addition to diversity, Reyes pledged to address a lack of access to justice, particularly for those who suffer from mental health issues; a lack of transparency around appointments to the court; and reforms to the cash bail system.

Contributing: Rachel Hinton