Diversity on the docket in state Supreme Court race
How important is racial diversity on the state’s top court? James Montgomery Sr. thinks it’s crucial. The veteran lawyer was corporation counsel under Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor.
Former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman was the first African American to ever hold a seat on the state’s highest court.
Now, the race to fill the vacancy created by Freeman’s retirement has reignited the debate over the importance of diversity on the bench.
The crowded field of candidates includes sitting Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., who was appointed to serve out the rest of Freeman’s term in 2018, appellate court justices Jesse Reyes, Nathaniel Howse Jr., Margaret Stanton McBride, Sheldon “Shelly” Harris, Cynthia Cobbs and lawyer Daniel Epstein.
Howse, Neville and Cobbs are all seeking to become the second African American elected to the state’s highest bench. Reyes is seeking to become the first Latino.
The remaining three candidates are white. And so are the six elected justices on the court now serving alongside Neville.
How important is racial diversity on the state’s top court?
James Montgomery Sr. thinks it’s crucial. The veteran lawyer was corporation counsel under Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor.
Over the course of his long legal career, Montgomery said the need for more people of color in the legal field, especially on the bench, is “critical.”
“The Illinois Supreme Court is the court of last representation, and if there’s no black representative there, there’s no fairness in my opinion,” Montgomery said. “I’m not suggesting these people are evil or prejudiced, I’m suggesting people on the court who don’t have that kind of perspective or background cannot possibly judge those people who are different fairly.”
Montgomery is backing Neville in the March 17 primary.
Maryam Ahmad, the first vice president for the Chicago Bar Association, said communities “look to the courts to reflect diversity.”
“The highest court is a reflection of the court system, it is for that reason that it, too, must be diverse,” Ahmad said. “Otherwise the argument is ‘do as we say, not as we do’ and I would argue that that’s a flawed premise.”
Some of the candidates hoping to succeed Freeman have differing opinions on the question.
McBride said that she believes there should be diversity on the bench. But as a woman, she represents a much-needed aspect of diversity, too, she said.
“Women represent the majority of our population, they represent the majority of people voting, yet we have never ever been represented as a majority on the Illinois Supreme Court, in the state Legislature, in the governor’s office. This goes all the way up to the, the United States level of government,” McBride said.
Howse disagreed, noting that three of the seven justices already on the bench are women. He argued that racial diversity is key because “there’s viewpoints and perspectives that make your decision richer by having that input ... You have to walk through the shoes to understand.”
Harris doesn’t believe the court needs to be racially diverse to do its job but does believe diversity is important.
“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, and I intend to create my own committee of prominent lawyers past judges, regardless of race, whatever, to make recommendations as to appointments,” Harris said. “You don’t need a black person on the Supreme Court to show that our Supreme Court is concerned with diversity.”
Montgomery called Harris’ argument “ridiculous.”
“It’s a terrible argument to say that [black and brown] justices are okay for the lower courts, but not okay for the highest court.”
Having a system that is “without the black perspective … is a flawed system,” Montgomery said.
He hopes the state’s highest court can retain an African American voice, but also said it would be good to see more diversity — like two African American judges, a Latino judge and an Asian judge, among others, get seated on the bench.
Beyond questions about racial diversity, the candidates are all trying to differentiate themselves to win the full 10-year term for the seat.
All of the justices seeking to move up to the top court tout similar records — high ratings from bar associations and years of experience in the legal field.
Neville 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.
“I have a body of work that’s unmatched. None of my opponents have been on the Illinois Supreme Court … I think I’m the best qualified for the job,” Neville said at a Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board meeting earlier this month.
As the only non-justice running for the seat, Epstein is pushing for reform on the court, saying it’s “a policy maker —it writes the rules that control how our justice system operates and those rules are in need of reform.”
That includes enhancing the court’s expert admission standard, creating an independent committee to determine conflicts of interest and working to end cash bail.
If elected, Reyes pledged to address lack of access to justice, particularly for those who suffer from mental health issues; a lack of transparency around appointments to the court; diversity on the state’s various benches, as well reforms to the cash bail system.
Freeman’s shadow hovers over the race. He was first elected in 1990, and spent more than 27 years on the court, including a stint at chief justice – the first and only African American to hold the top spot.
And Freeman is remembered by many for helping to write history as a Circuit Court judge in 1983, swearing in his friend Washington as the city’s first black mayor.
Neville has said he sees himself as “standing on [Freeman’s] shoulders.” Cobbs also touts Freeman as a mentor.
She said Freeman invited her to serve as a senior judicial law clerk, making her the first African American to do so for the state’s highest court. That experience was fundamental for the appellate justice and allowed her to work with other justices on the court.
“As the senior clerk, every case presented to Justice Freeman hit my desk first,” Cobbs said. “I served as a senior law clerk for seven and a half years drafting in collaboration with justice Freeman some of the most complex and difficult cases confronting the Supreme Court.”
Ultimately, voters will decide whether an African American remains on the court.
But Ahmad, of the Chicago Bar Association, said the need for greater diversity on the bench is “not going to be solved in one election.”
Ahmad said conversations around increasing diversity on the bench should happen whenever there’s a vacancy, so “we don’t have to wait for another person of color to retire for another person of color to be considered in a vacancy.”