Choice of key aide to Sheriff Tom Dart to judicial post challenged over questions of race, experience

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The appointment of the Cook County sheriff’s chief policy advisor to the bench has sparked complaints from pastors, attorneys and activists who question the choice of a white candidate to fill a vacancy in a Cook County subcircuit that includes portions of Chicago’s West Side with significant minority populations.

The dispute surrounds the Supreme Court appointment of Cara Smith, Sheriff Tom Dart’s key advisor, who was approved by the state Supreme Court June 6 to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Marianne Jackson. The appointment takes effect Monday and lasts into December, 2020, after 7th subcircuit voters will fill the seat for a full six-year term.

The appointment was recommended by state Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, and approved by the full court, after Smith was rated “highly qualified” by a screening committee that reviewed applicants. The Chicago Bar Association had rated Smith “qualified.”

But the appointment has drawn criticism that involve issues of race and courtroom experience, as Smith has for the past several years held positions as deputy chief of staff to the state Attorney General, and then more recently working for Dart. The subcircuit includes the majority African-American neighborhoods of Garfield Park, Austin and Lawndale, but also stretches into the suburbs of Berwyn, Proviso Township and to Forest Park, where Smith lives.

On Friday community and faith-based leaders, attorneys and activists gathered in the lobby of the Michael Bilandic State Office Building urging Burke to rescind the appointment. Smith declined to comment, and Burke emailed that she was at a conference and thus unavailable to comment.

“The face of justice clearly matters,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch of the Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield, and a member of the Leaders Network, who was among the group that gathered to oppose the appointment. Hatch added that the cultural experiences a justice brings to the bench “determine the degree of justice we can expect.”

The State Supreme Court had posted a press release from Justice Burke on Thursday, noting that Smith’s appointment had gone through a screening committee and emphasizing that the court is dedicated to appointing “the highest qualified individuals.” On Friday, the court removed that press release and posted an amended version that noted Justice P. Scott Neville, the only black justice on the court, had not taken part in the vote to approve Smith’s appointment.

Kevin Forde, a Chicago lawyer who heads Burke’s screening committee, said it had evaluated twelve applicants and interviewed five for this vacancy. He said that candidates — “a number” of whom were white — were evaluated based on their abilities and personal and professional histories, but he added that the selection committee is not “colorblind.”

Forde said the committee was “fully aware” of Smith’s lack of recent courtroom experience.

“People of different cultures [and] races bring different things to the bench, and that’s something that I’m sure is on everybody’s mind in the committee,” Forde said. However, he added, “we certainly don’t limit the application process to candidates of a certain race or ethnic group.”

Mable Taylor, an attorney and lifelong West Side resident who ran but lost for a court seat in 2018, said she sometimes questions “whether some of the judges hear what I hear,” in the courtroom, noting that differences in cultural background and experiences can affect how a judge rules on the bench. “We need diversity in our community because we don’t want to see so many of our black men locked up when a person might be able to understand what goes on in their community,” Taylor added.

Though Smith resides in Forest Park and has said that she raised her family in Maywood, the speakers Friday described her as disconnected from the West Side community, in contrast with Jackson, a West Side community member. “Our children had somebody to look up to and emulate, and now they’ve taken that away from us,” said Rev. Ira Acree of the Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin.

Burke, in her press release, noted that Alderman Jason Ervin — who was at the event Friday — had urged her to appoint a candidate whom, Burke wrote, had been found “not recommended” by the Chicago Bar Association.

At the press conference today, Ervin said his support of an unsuccessful candidate was not connected to his opposition to Smith’s appointment.

Eric Russell, executive director of the Tree of Life Justice League of Illinois, which advocates for police accountability said he was aware of several prominent African American attorneys who had submitted applications, but none of them had ever been called or interviewed when the appointment was announced.

One of them, attorney Patrick D. John, moved to Austin five years ago in order to “sink roots” into the community and represent the residents of the West Side. He and his wife attend church in Austin and have been warmly received by the community there, he said. John received a letter from the Chicago Bar Association’s Judicial Evaluation Committee informing him that he was “‘qualified’ for the office of Associate Judge.” He said he did not, however, receive a call from the judicial selection committee, and he learned of Smith’s appointment from news reports.

David Cherry, city leader of the All Stars Project Chicago and a member of the Leaders Network, said of children of the black community: “It may be true you can be a mayor or a president, but perhaps you cannot be appointed as a justice.”