After diversity concerns, appointed subcircuit judge declines to run

A white judge whose appointment sparked criticism about a lack of minority representation in a diverse subcircuit has decided not to run to keep her seat.

Judge Cara Lefevour Smith, appointed to a 7th subcircuit vacancy in June 2019 by the Illinois Supreme Court, will step down in December when her term expires.

“I believe it’s the right thing to do,” Smith told Injustice Watch. She declined to elaborate further.

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Smith’s appointment had sparked backlash among some African-American clergy, elected officials, and community members.

“The face of justice clearly matters,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch of the Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, in an interview with Injustice Watch shortly after the appointment.

Cook County created 15 judicial subcircuits in 1992 after criticism that countywide races were leaving minorities and Republicans shut out of the judiciary. In subcircuit races, only residents of the district can vote and candidates must reside in the subcircuit.

The 7th subcircuit covers large swaths of predominantly African-American neighborhoods on Chicago’s West Side, including Austin, Garfield Park and North Lawndale, and also includes suburban communities west of the city such as Berwyn, Proviso Township and Forest Park, where Smith lives.

Eric Russell, a resident of the West Side and executive director of the Tree of Life Justice League of Illinois, which advocates for police accountability, believed community pressure contributed to Smith’s decision not to run for the seat.

“The community outrage was consistent and it remained,” Russell said. “We were prepared to vote her out at the polls.”

State Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke nominated Smith to fill the vacancy of retiring African-American judge Marianne Jackson. The full court confirmed Smith’s nomination, but Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr., the sole person of color on the state’s highest court, abstained from the vote.

Amidst the backlash to her appointment, Smith pledged to serve as an honest broker of justice. “The people of the subcircuit and the county have my commitment that every single day I’m going to do my best to seek justice and to be fair and to be impartial,” she told ABC7.

Smith’s choice not to seek re-election garnered praise from Pamela Reaves-Harris, one of five candidates running to replace her in the March 17 primary election.

“I admire [Smith’s decision], because I think she’s correct,” said Reaves-Harris, a former state representative, who is black. “This seat was created with the intent to give African Americans in that community representation in the judicial system.”

Alderman Jason Ervin, who has close ties to Reaves-Harris, had submitted her name for consideration for the vacancy, Burke said in a press release at the time. Reaves-Harris was found “Not Recommended” by the Chicago Bar Association, which had found Smith “Qualified.”

Judges appointed to fill vacancies typically run to keep their seat at the end of the term, making Smith’s decision highly unusual. Judge Daniel O. Tiernan, appointed after Burke’s nomination last year to the 14th subcircuit, faced similar criticisms from Latino leaders about judicial diversity in a subcircuit with swaths of predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Tiernan is running to keep his seat, however, and faces just one challenger, Perla Tirado, who is Hispanic. The court appointed another judge to the 14th subcircuit in 2019, Gerardo Tristan Jr., who is Hispanic and running to keep his seat.

Of the five candidates vying to replace Smith in the 7th subcircuit, three are black, including Reaves-Harris, attorney Mable Taylor, who has run several times before, and assistant state’s attorney Owens “Joe” Shelby. Two of the candidates are white: attorney Kristen Marie Lyons and former assistant state’s attorney Marcia O’Brien Conway, who downplayed the role of race in the election.

Conway argued that the election should be open to anyone who meets the requirements, and emphasized her ties to the 7th subcircuit as a longtime resident of River Forest, an affluent western suburb with predominantly white residents.

“The 7th subcircuit is my home and my community and I am just as much as a part of this community as any other candidate,” she said.

Voters will have a chance to hear from the candidates themselves before the polls open.

A candidates’ forum, moderated by retired judge Jackson, is scheduled for Feb. 13. All five candidates have been invited to participate.