Illinois Supreme Court candidates answer community questions at forum

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Eva Hesrcowitz/The Daily Northwestern

Four Illinois Supreme Court candidates speak at a February 27 forum. Evanston Live TV owner Meleika Gardner moderated the forum, which Women Empowering Women in Local Legislation, a non-profit organization that helps women shape legislation, organized.

Eva Herscowitz, Reporter

Four Illinois Supreme Court justice candidates attempted to win residents’ votes in the state’s primary election on March 17 during a Thursday forum at Evanston’s Grace Lutheran Church.

Former attorney Daniel Epstein and appellate court justices Margaret Stanton McBride, Nathaniel Howse and Cynthia Cobbs answered questions from representatives from community and political groups and audience members.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin opened the forum by reminding attendees of the election’s significance.

“This is one of the most important elections that’s on the ballot, if not the most important,” Suffredin said. “The Illinois Supreme Court is the ultimate court in this state. It is responsible for making final decisions on important legal matters. It also is responsible for overseeing the entire court system throughout this state.”

Evanston Live TV owner Meleika Gardner moderated the forum, organized by Women Empowering Women in Local Legislation, a non-profit group that helps women shape legislation.

Epstein, an Evanston Township High School graduate and the youngest candidate by about 35 years, emphasized the need for systemic judicial reform. In addition to arguing for the elimination of Illinois’ “cash bail” system and for the empathetic treatment of defendants struggling with addiction, Epstein said his platform uniquely qualifies him for the job.

“I’m the only candidate talking about what we need to change moving forward,” Epstein said. “The wisest, fairest judge cannot achieve justice in an unfair system. We need to change the system, and we’ve laid out very explicitly what those systemic reforms are that we want to, and need to, make.”

Cobbs, a judge for the 1st District 3rd Division of the Illinois Appellate Court, said her judicial experience and background as a social worker sets her apart. She said economic barriers force many litigants to represent themselves in court, and she hopes to tackle this practice as a state Supreme Court justice.

In her closing statement, Cobbs said she wants to stress the need for greater racial and gender representation on state supreme courts. A 2019 Brennan Center for Justice report found that twenty-four states currently have an all white Supreme Court bench, including eight states in which people of color comprise at least a quarter of the state’s general population.

“We’ve had some difficulty in electing an African-American woman to the Supreme Court,” Cobbs said. “I am uniquely qualified to serve on the state’s high court. I have both the legal competence and the administrative experience to hit the ground running.”

If a person of color doesn’t fill the open seats, the high court will only contain only white justices.

Throughout the forum, advancing equity was a common theme.

When Evanston/North Shore NAACP president Michael Nabors asked the candidates how voters can be sure the victor won’t “join the good old boys’ club” instead of serving as an “agent of change,” Howse, who serves as a Justice of the 1st District 5th Division of the Illinois Appellate Court, said he’s always advocated for marginalized communities.

“I’ve never been a part of the good old boys’ club,” he said. “I have always fought for what I thought was right, and I will do the right thing on the Supreme Court.”

McBride said state courts should continue to connect mentally ill defendants with treatment programs. The Evanston resident, a judge for the 1st District 5th Division of the Illinois Appellate Court, said she’s committed her professional life to “treating others the way she wants to be treated.”

Not present at the forum were P. Scott Neville, Jr., Sheldon Harris and Jesse Reyes. Seven candidates are competing for former Justice Charles Freeman’s vacant seat, with Neville currently serving out the rest of Freeman’s term.

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Twitter: @herscowitz

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