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Battle for the bench: State Supreme Court hopefuls tout credentials, connections, compassion ahead of Dem slating

Sitting Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville could indeed have a fight ahead.  He is one of seven candidates actively running for the seat in next year’s election.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville, left; Appellate Justice Nathaniel Howse, right. 
Illinois Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville, left; Appellate Justice Nathaniel Howse, right. 
Provided/From YouTube.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. isn’t giving up the seat his mentor, former Justice Charles Freeman, tapped him for without a fight.

“I’m standing on his shoulders,” Neville said of Freeman.

But Neville could indeed have a fight ahead. He is one of seven candidates actively running for the seat in next year’s election. The first real hurdle in that race comes Friday, when the Cook County Democratic Party announces whether it will endorse one of them.

The candidates can make their case for that support to the 80 Chicago ward and suburban township Democratic committeemen on Thursday. The party backing in the Democratic dominated county is considered crucial.

Neville says he’s in for the long haul, no matter what the party decides.

He’s banking on his 45 years of appellate experience and what he considers the most important endorsement — Freeman’s.

The former state Supreme Court justice appointed Neville to the Circuit Court in 1999, to the appellate court in 2004 and, when Freeman decided to retire, to the state Supreme Court in 2018, an appointment then approved by the full court.

“If you go back and look, he voted on numerous occasions while he was on the Supreme Court to reverse me. So we don’t always think alike, but notice it did not prevent him from appointing me, and keep in mind he had an opportunity to appoint all of the people who are running against me.”

That field includes appellate court justices Jesse Reyes, Nathaniel Howse, Margaret McBride, Cynthia Cobbs, Sheldon Harris and lawyer Daniel Epstein.

“What I hope the party will do is look at who can best serve the people,” Reyes said. “I’ve served at a variety of different levels in the judiciary and proven when I have to run, through the help of the voters, I’m successful and I bring a familiarity with the system.”

Supreme Court candidates, left to right, Appellate Justices Jesse Reyes and Cynthia Cobbs and lawyer Daniel Epstein.
Supreme Court candidates, left to right, Appellate Justices Jesse Reyes and Cynthia Cobbs and lawyer Daniel Epstein.
File photo/Facebook/Campaign photo

Freeman was the first African American elected to the state’s top court. Neville, Howse and Cobbs are all vying to become the second.

Born in Tennessee, Howse said if he makes it to the Supreme Court it would be “nothing but a dream for someone who started in the South and in segregated schools.”

He worked his way up, becoming a circuit court judge in 1998. In 2009, he was assigned to the appellate court on a temporary basis before being elected to an appellate judge spot in 2012.

For him, the race is about representing the underdog and “protecting the civil rights of every individual.” He’d carry his appellate court experience with him to the Supreme Court.

“I believe I would be the best person to hold that office on a permanent basis because I have a perspective, a compassion for people and I have the ability to do the job.”

Epstein is the only candidate who isn’t a judge, something he said shouldn’t disqualify him. The former Jenner & Block attorney, says he’s a unique candidate, with a unique message.

As the “chief executive of the justice system,” Epstein says the court has the ability to do a lot more than just decide cases.

It can decide the rules of procedure, all rules for ethics, evidence and more to break down barriers to access — but the court hasn’t been doing that, he says. Part of his platform is to address the court’s “failure to act on those non-adjudicative areas of the court’s authority” and stop more harm being done.

McBride, Cobbs and Harris didn’t respond to requests for interviews.

Reyes says if he may still run even if he doesn’t get the nod from the county’s Democratic committeemen in his run at higher office. Howse says if that happens he would consult with his supporters about the best path forward.

Epstein said he isn’t banking on getting the endorsement and will still run because “if we take a carbon copy view of qualifications, we will continue to have carbon copy courts.”

Neville said he’s “absolutely” in whether he gets the party’s endorsement or not and said voters shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to weigh in.

“I think that citizens should understand Illinois is one of the few states that permits citizens to make a decision about who sits in judgment of them,” Neville said. “A lot of people have died, and much blood has been shed so that people have the right to vote. They should not pass up this opportunity to decide who sits on the Illinois Supreme Court.”