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Only African-American lawyer to serve on Illinois Supreme Court is retiring

Charles Freeman

Illinois State Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman in a 1997 file photo | AP photo

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Freeman, the only African-American to serve on the high court and currently its longest-tenured member, announced his retirement Thursday.

Freeman, 84, had served on the Supreme Court since his election in 1990. He is stepping down effective June 14.

State Appellate Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. was named to fill the remainder of Freeman’s term, which expires in December 2020. Neville, who also is African-American, joined the Appellate Court in 2004.

Freeman’s retirement sets the stage for a major election battle for his Supreme Court spot in 2020. It is one of three always coveted seats on the court from the 1st Judicial District, which covers Cook County.

Although Neville’s appointment will give him a leg up on other contenders, the rare opening on the Supreme Court will be sure to attract plenty of interest from additional candidates.

The last Supreme Court opening from Cook County was in 2012 when Justice Mary Jane Theis won the Democratic nomination over three appellate justices. She also had been appointed to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Thomas R. Fitzgerald.

Cook County Circuit Judge Charles E. Freeman swears in Harold Washington as Chicago s 42nd mayor at Navy Pier on April 29, 1983. Outgoing Mayor Jane Byrne is at right Historic moment. | Sun-Times Library

Freeman spent more than 27 years on the high court, twice winning retention votes. In 1997 he became the  first African-American to ascend to the position of chief justice.

Many Chicagoans may best remember Freeman for his role in a historic moment that took place before he joined the Supreme Court — when as a Circuit Court judge he presided over the 1983 swearing-in of his friend, Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor.

Three years later, Freeman was elected to the Appellate Court.

The court’s current chief justice, Lloyd A. Karmeier, issued a statement praising Freeman for “not only a wealth of legal knowledge, but also unparalleled insight into the court as an institution.”

Justice Robert R. Thomas, the former Bears placekicker, called Freeman a “dear personal friend” and said, “I can’t think of a single area of the law that hasn’t been significantly shaped by Charles’ jurisprudence over the last three decades.”

But Freeman’s tenure was not without controversy, most of it related to his power to appoint judges to vacancies in the Cook County courts.

One Freeman judicial appointee was convicted of illegal structuring bank withdrawals in connection with an investigation into whether he paid a $30,000 bribe to get his seat on the bench.

That judge, George J.W. Smith, had initially been appointed to his Cook County judgeship by Freeman on the recommendation of former Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak.

But Freeman denied he received any payment and no additional charges were brought.

Other Freeman appointees came under scrutiny over their background and qualifications.

Neville was Freeman’s own pick to replace him. The Supreme Court approved the nomination. Freeman had previously appointed Neville to the Circuit Court.

Neville, who ran for 3rd Ward alderman in 1985, initially drew criticism in his 1990 campaign for judge because he skipped the Chicago Bar Association evaluation process, while submitting his credentials to a group of other bar organizations that found him qualified. In subsequent elections, the CBA also recommended Neville.