Charles Freeman, first black Illinois Supreme Court justice, to retire

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Charles E. Freeman portrait, wearing judicial robes

Illinois Courts

Retiring Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Freeman

Illinois State Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Freeman announced Thursday his retirement from the court on which he served more than 27 years. The 84-year-old justice, whose retirement will take effect on June 14, was the first African-American to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court and the first African-American to become Chief Justice when he served in that role from mid-1997 through the end of 1999.

Illinois Appellate Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. was appointed to fill Freeman’s seat through the rest of his term, which ends on Dec. 7, 2020, the Supreme Court announced in a press release. Neville, an appellate court justice since 2004 and a judge since 2000, will be the second African-American justice to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court.

An opinion authored by Neville last month overturned the murder conviction of Jesus Sanchez in connection with a 2013 shooting in Wheeling, finding “convincing evidence” that the police had relied upon a false confession that was contradicted by the physical evidence. The appellate panel opinion chastised the police for using deception to win the confession and called on police to “renounce the use of deceptive practices in law enforcement so that the members of the community learn that they can trust police officers to treat them honestly.” Experts described the opinion as groundbreaking, particularly in its consideration of the impact of police deception on the community.

Appellate Court Judge Michael B. Hyman has been reassigned to Neville’s appellate court seat through Dec. 7, 2020, and Cook County Circuit Court Judge Carl Anthony Walker has been assigned to the First District Appellate Court until further order of the Court.

Freeman was first elected to the court in 1990, filling the vacancy of Seymour Simon, and was retained in 2000 and 2010. His seat — one of three on the seven-member court chosen from Cook County — will be filled through a partisan election when the term expires in 2020.

Freeman’s career before becoming an Illinois Supreme Court Justice spanned a variety of types of law. After beginning in private practice, he served as an Illinois assistant attorney general, a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, and an assistant attorney for the County Board of Election Commissioners. He spent years as an arbitrator with the Illinois Industrial Commission, and later served on the Illinois Commerce Commission after being appointed by Governor Dan Walker.

Freeman was first elected to the Cook County Circuit Court in 1976. During his ten years on the circuit court, he administered the oath of office to his friend Harold Washington when Washington became Chicago’s first African-American mayor in 1983, as well as when Washington began his second term in 1987.

Freeman wrote the 1994 decision overturning the conviction of Rolando Cruz for the rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. No physical evidence linked Cruz to the crime, and a sheriff’s lieutenant admitted to lying under oath about statements Cruz had made. In the opinion reversing Cruz’s conviction, Freeman wrote, “[W]e are duty bound to play a larger role in preserving that very basic guarantee of our democratic society, that every person, however culpable, is entitled to a fair and impartial trial.”

Cruz was acquitted on retrial and later pardoned based on innocence; another man was eventually found guilty of the murder. Freeman also authored the majority opinion in a case upholding an attorney’s right to see a client when being interrogated, and wrote a dissent in another case arguing that juveniles have a right not to be shackled in court without justification.

Colleagues on the court noted Freeman’s influence. “It is impossible to overstate Justice Freeman’s impact on Illinois law,” Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier was quoted as saying in a press release issued by the court. “In the course of his long tenure, he has participated in resolution of some of the most difficult and important controversies to come before the courts of Illinois. Research nearly any point of Illinois law and you will find controlling precedent that he authored.”

Added Justice Robert R. Thomas, “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. His influence will continue long after his retirement.”