Supreme Court candidates meet at Injustice Watch forum

Davon Clark

Candidates for the Illinois Supreme Court (L to R), Daniel Epstein, Appellate Judge Jesse Reyes, Appellate Judge Nathaniel Howse and Appellate Judge Margaret McBride, at a candidates forum on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020

Six candidates for a rare open seat on the Illinois Supreme Court made their case to voters in a forum Monday night, hosted by Injustice Watch, the Chicago chapter of the American Constitution Society, and UIC John Marshall Law School.

The candidates faced questions about their experience, conflicts of interest, court efficiency, and the importance of diversity on the court, in a race for the only seat on the state’s highest court ever held by a person of color.

One candidate, Appellate Judge Shelly Harris, declined the invitation to appear at the forum.

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Attorney Daniel Epstein, the only non-judge running for the Supreme Court, garnered applause during his closing statements when he railed against cash bail in response to current Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., who had argued that some downstate counties wouldn’t be able to fund their justice systems without cash bail.

“I heard something outrageous tonight, that the reason we haven’t ended cash bail is because jails wouldn’t be able to fund themselves without it,” Epstein said. “That’s unconscionable.”

Epstein had faced questions about his lack of experience on the judiciary, and used the opportunity to make the case that he’s the only candidate with a platform for reform.

The other candidates – all appellate court judges and Neville, who was appointed to the seat in 2018 – asked voters to consider their decades of legal and judicial experience.

“I’m running on the old-fashioned idea that qualifications matter,” Appellate Judge Margaret McBride said.

Davon Clark

Appellate Judge Margaret McBride

But McBride punted when asked what she would change about the Supreme Court.

“I’m not on the Supreme Court so I’m not sure that I can really discuss how I would improve it,” she said.

Appellate Judge Nathaniel Howse emphasized his efforts to reduce the backlog of cases at the appellate level. A system he implemented – where justices with cases not addressed within six months must submit a letter explaining the delay – has brought the backlog to nearly zero, he said.

“I have demonstrated a willingness to speed up justice,” he said.

Appellate Judge Cynthia Cobbs said she would take steps to address the increasing number of litigants in the legal system who are forced to represent themselves in court for lack of funds.

Davon Clark

Appellate Judge Cynthia Cobbs

“We have a large population of self-representing litigants,” she said, adding that she would expand legal assistance programs.

Appellate Judge Jesse Reyes denounced the use of jails as places where people with mental disabilities are housed for extended periods of time awaiting trial.

“It’s a jail, it’s not a mental institution,” he said.

Neville asked voters to consider the weight of his appointment to the seat.

“The Supreme Court elevated me because they knew I would bring about substantive change,” he said, noting that he had reversed more cases than any of the other candidates.

Davon Clark

Illinois Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr.

Neville, who is black, also emphasized the importance of diversity on the court. The seat was previously held by Charles E. Freeman, the only person of color to hold a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court.

“State courts face a crisis of legitimacy,” he said. “White courts don’t reflect society. Cook County voters must decide if the Supreme Court will avoid the legitimacy crisis by retaining a person of color on the Supreme Court.”

Attorney Cindy Medina-Cervantes, one of about 125 people in attendance, said she appreciated seeing the diversity of the candidates’ perspectives.

“Every candidate represents a totally different approach to the issues,” she said.

Attorney Aleksandra Hodowany thought that the candidates seemed to be more focused on educating voters than in the past.

“It feels like since the last election, more candidates are paying attention to letting the voters know who they are,” she said.