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Head of Council’s Black Caucus, pastors tell Justice Burke they want diversity — not another white judge — on bench

The 28th Ward alderman and church leaders are crying foul after Burke recommended Cara Smith, the chief policy advisor to the Cook County sheriff, to fill a vacancy left by a retiring African American judge.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) calls for Supreme Court Justice Ann Burke to rescind her judicial appointment of Cara Smith to the 7th Sub-Circuit.
Faith leaders and community activists look on as Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) calls for Supreme Court Justice Ann Burke to rescind her judicial appointment of Cara Smith to the 7th Sub-Circuit during a press conference in the lobby of the Bilandic Building, Friday morning, June 14, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The new head of the City Council’s Black Caucus squared off with state Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke on Friday over her appointment of a white County employee to replace a retiring black judge — accusing Burke of putting politics ahead of diversity.

“To me it looks like they were looking not to appoint someone of color to this position,” Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said.

Flanked by pastors and lawyers from the West Side, Ervin demanded Burke rescind the appointment at a news conference at the state supreme court offices in Chicago.

Burke tapped Cara Smith, a top aide to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, to fill the vacancy in the subcircuit, which spans much of the city’s West Side, including the Austin neighborhood, and some western suburban areas such as River Forest and Proviso Township.

“There were several to my knowledge who had applied for this, and to say that there were no qualified individuals on the West Side of Chicago to take this seat . . . is a false narrative and I totally disagree with that,” Ervin said.

“What is the record of Cara Smith? What has she been doing for the last 20 years other than being someone who worked with Sheriff Tom Dart and someone that worked with Attorney General Lisa Madigan . . . so where is her court experience?”

Cara Smith. | AP file photo
Cara Smith, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s chief policy adviser.
Associated Press

Smith declined to respond to Ervin’s comments, and Burke did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But in a statement released Thursday, Justice Burke raised questions about whether the West Side alderman’s concerns were solely about diversity.

Burke’s statement said after the vacancy in the subcircuit was announced, Ervin came to her in October and asked for Pamela Reaves-Harris to be appointed to the post. Reaves-Harris is the former state representative for the 10th District, a post Ervin’s wife filled when Reaves-Harris decided not to seek re-election.

Burke said Reaves-Harris could apply like everyone else, and she would be reviewed by the selection committee.

An evaluation by The Chicago Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Committee found Reaves-Harris was “not recommended” for the post and went on to say “while Ms. Harris was ‘a dedicated, busy and hardworking public servant,’ her ‘limited practice and court experience would make it difficult for her to effectively serve as a Circuit Court judge,’” according to Burke’s statement.

Word of Burke’s pick went out last Thursday and was quickly mired in controversy.

Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of the Austin-based St. John Bible Church, said Burke still had time to “do the right thing” for the seventh subcircuit.

The clergyman pleaded with Burke not to swear in Smith, who is Dart’s policy chief, on Monday. Acree and others later tried to deliver a letter to Burke, but security turned him away. Smith, who is white, would replace retiring judge Marianne Jackson, who is black.

“We do not want an illegitimate justice representing our community,” Acree said. “To [swear Smith in] would be a gross injustice to our community. Everybody knows this judicial position was created by the Illinois legislature to give us assurance that the judicial system would have some diversity — we want diversity on our bench.”

“We will not sit idly by and allow the Burkes to once again disrespect our community,” Acree said, in an apparent reference to the judge and her husband, embattled Ald. Edward M. Burke, who faces criminal charges in a political corruption case.

Ed Burke was in charge of slating Democratic judicial candidates until January when the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, Toni Preckwinkle, stripped him of that power. The move came after the veteran alderman was named in a criminal complaint that included the allegation that he attempted to extort campaign cash for Preckwinkle from the owner of a Burger King.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke in 2014.
Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke delivers a speech at McCormick Place in 2014. File Photo.
Sun-Times file photo

Ervin said it’s his job as chairman of the subcircuit committee of the Cook County Democratic Party to make judicial recommendations, so the meeting with Anne Burke about Reaves-Harris wasn’t unusual.

Though Reaves-Harris was determined to be not qualified, there were other black candidates who were, Ervin said.

Faith leaders, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and community activists look on Friday as attorney Patrick Dankwa John calls for Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke to rescind her judicial appointment of Cara Smith to the seventh subcircuit during a press conference in the lobby of the Bilandic Building. John said he is qualified and applied for the job.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Patrick Dankwa John, applied for the post and was deemed “qualified” by the Chicago Bar Association’s judicial evaluation committee. John said Friday he found out he wasn’t chosen when he saw the news of Smith’s appointment.

“I was found qualified by the Chicago Bar Association and, like most of the other folks, I did not get a call, I did not get an interview . . . I’ve been practicing law for 21 years,” John said. “How much more qualified do we have to be? There’s always a plus one with us.”

Smith was found “highly qualified,” according to Burke’s statement.

Rev. Ira Acree (center), of Greater St. John Bible Church, was among a group of faith leaders, community activists and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who were denied entry Friday by security while trying to deliver a letter to Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke a
Rev. Ira Acree (center), of Greater St. John Bible Church, was among a group of faith leaders, community activists and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who were denied entry Friday by security while trying to deliver a letter to Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke at the Bilandic Building. The letter calls on her to rescind her judicial appointment of Cara Smith to the seventh subcircuit.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she knows Smith “personally” and believes she is an “able lawyer” who has had “a lot of different experiences in the private sector, but mostly in government life.”

But the mayor, who is a member of the Chicago Bar Association, was sympathetic to the political point Ervin and others are making.

“You need to have diversity in the judiciary, particularly when you’re talking about criminal matters and when we look at who is most likely to be a defendant,” she said. “Making sure that there are people sitting on the judiciary who understand the unique needs and challenges of their community is really important.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman