June 19, 2019



Unbeknownst to many Illinoisans, there is an "unofficial" African-American seat on the state Supreme Court and that seat may not exist after 2020, and Democratic politicians know this.

This possibility, which is now bordering on probability, is causing some serious anxiety. There are three African-Americans, two Hispanics, three women and four men running for ONE Supreme Court vacancy, with Shelly Harris and Margaret Stanton McBride each being very well-funded.

This is also a nightmare scenario for Democratic politicians because it means some key Democratic constituency is going to be aggravated by whatever the March primary outcome is, and that anger will soon manifest itself when Cook County Democratic slate makers make their endorsement in August. With Ed Burke deposed as the slate makers' judicial chairman, the thankless task of making a Supreme Court pick has fallen on state Representative Robert Martwick (D-19), the 38th Ward committeeman who chairs the committee which make a recommendation to the full slate making body.

Control of the Supreme Court is paramount to the Democratic establishment, especially their key fund-raising constituencies of unions and trial lawyers. There are a myriad of critical issues that come before the court, where the Democrats' majority is 4-3, those being tort reform and judgment caps, redistricting, right-to-work, campaign reform and spending caps, pension protection, abortion rights, affirmative action, gun control and ballot access. (Remember: it was the Supreme Court that put Rahm Emanuel back on the ballot in 2011.) If the Democrats' slated 2020 candidate loses, and a non-slated candidate prevails, their 4-3 majority could become 3-4 on certain issues.

Another critical chore is appointing lawyers to Circuit Court vacancies, and the assignment of circuit judges to Appellate Court vacancies. The beauty of that ploy is that the "assignee" returns to their old job if they lose. There are 24 Appellate and 261 Circuit Court judges, and the three 1st District justices have the power to fill any of them until the next election, thereby paying-off clouted lawyers/ judges and special interests, and bestowing the gift of incumbency, which is a huge edge for getting slated.

The quid pro quo is that they must then run for a nomination and must donate $40,000 to the county party, to be used for a mass mailer and palm cards; it also procures the 25,000-plus petition signatures to get on the county ballot.

SUPREME COURT: The African-American seat materialized in 1990, when Charles Freeman, a longtime personal friend of and counselor to the late Mayor Harold Washington, won the Democratic nomination in the 1st District, which consists of Cook County. He was the first African-American justice. The Supreme Court has seven justices, three from the 1st District and four from single-member Downstate districts. Freeman, a South Side Chicagoan, was elected to the Circuit Court in 1976 and Appellate Court in 1986, when Washington was mayor. Supreme Court justices have a 10-year term, and Freeman was retained in 2000 and 2010. The other 1st District Democratic justices are Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis, both of whom were slated on the recommendation of Ed Burke, Justice Burke's husband. In the recent past, Freeman made appointments to black vacancies, and Burke and Theis alternated in filling white and Hispanic vacancies.

When Freeman resigned in 2018, his choice as successor was Cynthia Cobbs, an African-American Appellate Court justice with a political base in the south suburbs. But all seven Supreme Court justices must vote, and a majority picked Appellate Court justice P. Scott Neville - a rare rebuke to a sitting justice. Neville is a respected jurist who has been on the bench for 20 years.

The forming 2020 field includes Neville, Cobbs, and Appellate justice Nathaniel Howse, all African American, as well as Appellate justice Jesse Reyes and Circuit judge Sandra Ramos, both Hispanic, plus McBride and Harris, both also Appellate justices. The dynamics in a Supreme Court race are different from other obscure down-ballot judicial and county contests, where race, gender and surnames play a decisive role. "It is an important position," said consultant Frank Calabrese. "Voters pay attention."

The key elements are (1) credentials, which facilitate endorsements (bar, media, unions), which foster an image of winnability; and (2) campaign cash from special interests or self-funding which buys media exposure and TV time. McBride's finance chairman is personal injury mega-lawyer Robert Clifford, and Harris will get a lot of bucks from his fellow trial lawyers and the large Jewish legal community. Union endorsements and money could be determinative.

But the real wrinkle is that with the exploding social media, probably a quarter of potential 2020 voters - Millennials and those under age 50 - now get their information from Facebook or other sources, not from TV or the print media. The Democratic presidential race will still be furious and unresolved by the time of the March 20 Illinois primary, so turnout will be huge. A whole lot of people will vote knowing nothing about the Supreme Court contenders. Turnout was 1,196,000 in 2016, so whoever gets 400,000 will win.

Outlook: The top four are Neville, McBride, Harris and Reyes. Neville needs 70 to 75 percent of the African-American vote, and Howse and Cobbs could seal his doom by splitting his base. A lot of women will opt for McBride, but Harris will spend $1 million and his name will take votes from McBride. Ballot position will be critical. Reyes should not be under-estimated. He won his 2012 Appellate race over a black candidate, another Hispanic and an Irish-surnamed woman.

APPELLATE COURT: Of the current Supreme Court justices, five of seven were Appellate Court justices, and three of seven were appointed to the Supreme Court by the Supreme Court before running and winning. There are two Appellate Court vacancies in 2020, and assignees/appointees Michael Hyman and John Griffin will be seeking election as slated candidates. Definitely in the race are Circuit Court judges Sharon Johnson and William Stewart Boyd, and Carolyn Gallagher, elected in 2016. Who runs against whom is undetermined, but the two women will not both file for the same vacancy. Hyman, of the incumbents, is most likely to lose. More candidates (and Circuit judges) will surely run.

CIRCUIT COURT: There are eight vacancies to date, and three to eight more by the closure of filing on December. The signature requirement is 0.025 percent, which means about 15,000. That is no easy task, as 20-25,000 will be needed to withstand any challenge. "There will be a flock of candidates" for Circuit judge, predicted Calabrese, with a whole bunch at slate making. And they will have a 90-day circulating period, starting in early September.

Democrats will exercise their usual ploy of assembling a "slate" for existing vacancies, and six to 10 "alternates" for future vacancies, which means those which conveniently arise just before the filing date, or during the 5-day filing period. "Alternatives" promise not to run against the slate. And when late vacancies occur, the party magically gets 15,000 signatures within days, and gets him or her on the ballot. Since every other challenger has already circulated and filed, and since getting 15,000 signatures in a few days is an impossibility, the "alternate" is invariably unopposed.

10TH SUBCIRCUIT: State Senator John Mulroe (D-10) was appointed by the Supreme Court to Tom Allen's vacancy, effective June 21. He has $520,311 on-hand in his senate campaign account. Lorraine Murphy, an assistant state's attorney in the 2nd District, ran and lost in 2016, but Mulroe's name ID and money give her no chance in 2020. She, as well many other Northwest Side lawyers, will wait for a 2022 vacancy.

CLERK OF CIRCUIT COURT: 19-year incumbent Dorothy Brown is forever under siege, especially by the feds regarding her office's operations and hiring practices. Lawyers fume about her antiquated filing procedures. Brown continually fails in her bids for higher office. Despite a jobholder pool of nearly 2,000, she could not get 12,500 signatures to get on the 2019 Chicago mayoral ballot. Her current cash-on-hand is $171.

She was not the slated candidate in 2016, nor will she be in 2020. But she is initially favored to win, largely because she is she only African-American candidate, has a huge following in African-American churches, has three opponents who will split the anti-Brown vote, and, most importantly, she HAS NOT BEEN INDICTED.

The forming 2020 field consists of 2016 loser Jacob Meister; Board of Review commissioner Mike Cabonargi, who has $530,253 on-hand, but is an unknown; and 17-year state Senator Iris Martinez (D-20), who has $116,405 on-hand. All will campaign as "reformers" in the mold of 2018's Fritz Kaegi, who defeated Joe Berrios for assessor. The party will likely slate Martinez. But three anti-Brown challengers will equate to a 30-35 percent Brown win.

20TH HOUSE DISTRICT: The abrupt and unexpected resignation of state Representative Mike McAuliffe (R-20) in his Northwest Side Chicago district will hand the 74-44 Madigan majority another seat. After 23 years in Springfield, McAuliffe said, he was weary of his "44/7" job and his ineffectuality as a Republican legislator.

Editor's note: Columnist Stewart has been an attorney for 40 years and follows judicial contests.