ETHS grad makes bid for state Supreme Court


Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer

Daniel Epstein at Evanston Township High School. Epstein is running for the Illinois Supreme Court.

Samantha Handler, City Editor

Daniel Epstein never had a dream of having a big house or a nice car. Instead, the attorney and Evanston Township High School grad has a dream of justice and making the world — or at least Illinois — a better place, one case at a time.

To do that, he says, there needs to be systemic judicial reform, which can only be done from the highest court in Illinois, the state Supreme Court. The Evanston native is one of seven candidates running for the Cook County seat on the Supreme Court. If elected, he would be the youngest justice in 101 years.

“I’m very much all in,” Epstein said. “I took my life savings — I put aside enough to make it through the election, to maintain health insurance and to buy a ring for my girlfriend. Everything else went into this.”

In the crowded field — which may still be growing as another attorney started circulating petitions to join the race on Thursday — Epstein is currently the only candidate who is not a judge and who has presented a platform of ideas rather than just his qualifications. Illinois judicial candidates are not allowed to talk about how they would decide cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court. The other candidates tout their experience and past decisions they’ve made.

He’s also the youngest by about 35 years.

Still, the 34-year-old has plenty of experience of his own. He has represented clients before the U.S. Supreme Court and received the Albert. E. Jenner Pro Bono Award from the law firm he worked at for providing “exceptional legal services to vulnerable candidates in complex pro bono cases.”

Epstein’s campaign, run by Evanston resident and activist Bobby Burns, has a different strategy: focus on ideas. The Illinois Supreme Court has the power to write the rules of procedure, evidence and ethics, which would allow Esptein — if elected — to change rules that could reduce the influence of money in Illinois courts, close ethical loopholes and decrease access barriers.

After a case he worked on that could have exposed systemic funding issues and faulty DNA machines did not go to trial because of an Illinois Supreme Court rule, Epstein was inspired to run for the seat. The rule requires a conference between the prosecution and the defense before a judge, who says whether or not the case is looking like a conviction and gives a possible sentencing.

In Epstein’s case, the judge said appropriate sentencing would have been 70 years, but the state offered 20 years if the client pleaded guilty. The client plead guilty rather than risk dying in jail, and Epstein did not get to expose corruption on the record. If the Supreme Court changed the rule, however, those cases would be more likely to go to trial.

“I talk a lot about ideas, but I represented the people who were hurt by this stuff,” Epstein said. “So it’s not just an idea for me. It’s people who are being harmed in preventable ways.”

Epstein said people in Evanston are excited about the fresh perspective he would bring to the court and his ideas for progressive reform. Others, he added, are also excited about the possibility of having an Evanston resident on the court.

He said he probably developed some of his ideas because he’s from Evanston, a place where progressive reform is a “big deal.”

“When I go out and talk to folks, all throughout the county,” Epstein said, “but especially in Evanston, the ideas that I’m talking about really resonate.”

From his campaign manager to his campaign headquarters just a few blocks away from ETHS, Epstein’s campaign is “super Evanston.” He said he still “bleeds orange and blue” and kicked off his campaign last Sunday at the Hilton Orrington.

One of the members of the host committee for Epstein’s campaign kickoff was Hecky Powell of Hecky’s barbeque. Powell said Epstein’s presence on the court would benefit the whole state, partly because he grew up in a diverse community. He added that he wants to support people from his community and likes Epstein’s progressive views.

“He’s definitely qualified,” Powell said. “He also was born and raised here in Evanston and went through the school system here. So, in other words, I got an investment in him with my tax dollars.”

Powell said he does think Epstein can win if he gets support from Evanston and the North Shore.

Evanston resident Neal Weingarden said he supports Epstein because his approach is “refreshing” and shows he wants to fix the system, not accept the system.

“His ideals of a true and just legal system that works for the people hasn’t been ground out of him by the bureaucracy of the court and a quest to grow his personal savings account,” Weingarden said. “He wants to serve the people, not the tradition of a legacy system.”

But winning the race is an uphill battle for Epstein. Cook County Democrats endorsed the incumbent P. Scott Neville — who was appointed to the court after the state’s first black justice Charles Freeman retired — despite a report from NBC 5 that the justice received a tax break from a homeowner’s exemption, though he did not live in that house.

Sticking out in a crowded field is tough, too. Weingarden said the large field has benefits by giving people different choices and creating healthy competition but that candidates who have an “established ground game” have an advantage.

He said Epstein needs to win the “marketplace of ideas” and hope for a grassroots movement. Weingarden said he wants to say Epstein has a shot at winning but ultimately doesn’t know because of the power of the Democratic machine and the alliances that other candidates have.

As others have spent decades building political relationships, races get easier to win, Weingarden said.

“Could this be Cook County’s ‘AOC moment?’” Weingarden said. “Maybe.”

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Twitter: @sn_handler