Primary win puts Neville on path to become second black elected Illinois Supreme Court justice

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Editor’s Note: Updated at 10:30 a.m., Wednesday, March 18

Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. is virtually certain to become the second elected black justice in Illinois history, after edging out six opponents in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election to maintain the seat he has held by appointment.

Neville won endorsements from the Cook County Democratic party and labor and labor and government employee unions after he was appointed in 2018 to fill the vacancy of Justice Charles Freeman, the state’s first justice of color. The Republicans have no candidate for the seat, making Neville virtually certain to win in November.

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Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr.

A former circuit and appellate judge, he has more than 20 years experience on the bench and is considered by many in the legal community to have a sharp analytical mind. In 2019, he authored the landmark opinion in People v. Buffer, ruling that juveniles sentenced to more than 40 years are effectively serving unconstitutional life sentences.

With more than 97 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday morning, Neville had secured more than 25 percent of the vote, and a comfortable 4.5-percentage-point lead over the next closest candidate, Appellate Judge Jesse Reyes.

Reyes, who would have been the supreme court’s first Latinx justice, emphasized his volunteer work in the community and pledged to promote diversity across the courts. With the coveted top slot on the ballot, he won nearly 21 percent of the vote, but trailed Neville by more than 30,000 votes.

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Diversity at stake in competitive Illinois Supreme Court race

The race is on for the only Illinois Supreme Court seat ever held by a person of color.

Coming in third was Appellate Judge Shelly Harris, who put nearly $2 million of his own money into his campaign and spent much of it on a sweeping television ad campaign. Harris, who is white, also faced allegations of misconduct from a former colleague days before the election. He won nearly 16 percent of the vote.

Appellate Judges Cynthia Cobbs and Margaret McBride were neck-and-neck for fourth, each hovering around 12.5 percent. Attorney Daniel Epstein, by far the youngest and least experienced candidate in the race, ran on a platform of progressive court reforms. He put $300,000 of his own money into the race, but earned just 8 percent of the vote.

In last place, Appellate Judge Nathaniel Howse, a black man and former partner of Neville, won just 5 percent of the vote, despite endorsements from Secretary of State Jesse White and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky.

In appellate races, a tale of two incumbents

Appointed appellate judges Michael Hyman and John Griffin both earned the party’s backing and faced strong competition from women of color. Only one emerged victorious.

Hyman has served on the appellate court by assignment since 2013 and is a former president of the Chicago Bar Association. He earned overwhelmingly positive bar ratings, including the Chicago Council of Lawyers’ highest rating of “highly qualified.”

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Appellate Judge Michael B. Hyman

He won Tuesday with nearly 34 percent of the vote in a four-way race, holding a six-point lead over his closest challenger, Circuit Judge Sandra Ramos.

Ramos, who serves in the law division and is a former assistant state’s attorney, would have been the first Latina appellate judge.

In third place, attorney Maureen O’Leary earned more than 21 percent of the vote. A first-time candidate with no reported outside donations or spending late into the race and no presence on the campaign trail, O’Leary bore all the marks of a “sham candidate,” who runs to split the vote with a similarly named opponent.

That strategy seems to have worked, as Circuit Judge Carolyn Gallagher came in fourth with only 17 percent of the vote. The last time Gallagher ran, she won against a “sham candidate.”

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Circuit Judge Sharon O. Johnson

Appointed Appellate Judge John Griffin, a former circuit judge in the law division, won high praise from the bar associations but could not keep his seat in a two-way race.

Circuit Judge Sharon Johnson, who is black and serves in the domestic relations division, won Griffin’s seat in a 53-47 race. Johnson, who earned positive ratings, ran for the appellate court once before in 2014. She joins four women of color in the 24-member Cook County district of the appellate court.