Q&A: Former alderman Jean-Baptiste running for full circuit court term

Susan Du

Former Evanston Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd), an Evanston Township High School graduate and an attorney for 20 years, will seek a full term on the Cook County 9th Subcircuit Court in the March 20 election.

He was appointed a judge on the Circuit Court by the Illinois Supreme Court last spring to fill the vacancy created when Judge Gerald Bender died in Nov. 2010.

His competitor, Judge Michael Ian Bender, currently serves on the Cook County Circuit Court in the Domestic Relations Division and is the son of the late judge, whose vacancy both he and Jean-Baptiste are vying to fill.

The Daily: How did your experiences as an Evanston alderman inform your work as a judge?

Jean-Baptiste: I learned to listen well and to be balanced in my approach, to listen to my constituents. And my constituents themselves needed to flesh out their issues, their concerns whenever there was a particular initiative that was undertaken by the city or my ward, so I learned through that process to listen. I was involved in many different committees with many different issues, whether it was with youth interests or jobs or … economic development throughout the city. I learned to be balanced in my approach, and I think that my judgment was made more acute from having that kind of exposure.

The Daily: What was it like to transition from one career to the other?

Jean-Baptiste: I didn’t just transition from city council, because I was in private practice for 20 years and I practiced in many different areas of the law, whether it was probate, personal injury, immigration. And I litigated in many different areas, so I appeared before the judges in many different courts. And on city council not only did I have to (deal with) the various issues and balance a lot of things, but I also had to deal with eight other aldermen who had different perspectives. For us to advance the interests of the city, we had to fight to build consensus, so in my judgment the transition was not difficult.

The Daily: What was your primary incentive for becoming a judge?

Jean-Baptiste: It’s certainly an honor when a Supreme Court justice reaches out and says to you, “Look, I’d like to nominate you to become a Circuit Court judge.” It’s an honor because it’s a kind of position that only a few attorneys would have the opportunity to enter into. So with that honor, it also allowed me to have a little bit more stability in my life as a judge at that particular point in time. There are predictable work hours, and there’s a certain predictability that the practice itself did not offer. So it was the honor, the respect, the dignity that comes with all of that. Not saying that those things were not there as an alderman, those things were not there as a lawyer. You know the judgeship … we are entrusted with people’s property, we represent a certain degree of authority, so exercising these things with wisdom is very important.

The Daily: You transitioned from living in Haiti to Evanston, growing up in the 2nd Ward, then went on to Princeton. What was your experience like, eventually attaining such a high level of scholarship? What were some of the major challenges you experienced? What got you through?

Jean-Baptiste: I think one of the things I’ve always appreciated was that I grew up in an extended family that always had high expectations of me. They always expected me to achieve, and so it was sort of a “no excuse” kind of a relationship. So I think that was one of the main driving forces that there were a lot of expectations that I would do a lot of things and that I would overcome obstacles that stand in my way. At 14, I didn’t speak a lick of English. I went to school … and I was able to grasp things pretty fast. I think part of the opportunity to go to Princeton came from the era. I got out of high school in the 1970s, and that was at the height of the civil rights movement and a lot of rights had been won for black people. We were really expanding the boundaries. And I was always very well supported by my family. My parents were working-class people but always there to encourage, to push forward, to relish and to be proud of my achievements. My mother for almost a month after I was appointed judge would walk into a room with family members and say “Stand up, because the judge’s mother is in the room.”

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