Cook County Democrats back Illinois Supreme Court Justice Cunningham and slate of judicial candidates for 2024

In a political ritual preceding every election cycle, those who want to be judges appear at a colorful meeting to vie for the support of Democratic power brokers. The slating event is often a strong indication of who will become a judge.

A profile of Joy Cunningham, a Black female supreme court justice, wearing a black robe and glasses with two other justices seated behind her.

Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Joy V. Cunningham was appointed last year to fill a vacancy.

The Cook County Democratic Party threw its support behind Illinois Supreme Court Justice Joy V. Cunningham on Tuesday, putting her in a strong position to keep her appointed post on the court in next year’s election.

Cook County Board President and party boss Toni Preckwinkle backed Cunningham, who became the second Black woman on the state’s highest court when she was appointed last year. Cunningham defeated Appellate Court Judge Jesse G. Reyes, who argued to party leaders it was time for the state supreme court to have its first Latinx justice.

Cunningham’s selection was the most significant judicial endorsement in a parade of candidates hoping for posts ranging from circuit court to the state’s top court in the primary and general elections next year. All but two of the slated candidates already hold the posts they are seeking to keep, as they were appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court, which fills judicial vacancies until the next election. Appointed judges must then run in a general election to keep their seats.

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The party’s stamp doesn’t guarantee election, but it’s a big leg up in heavily Democratic Cook County. Party-backed candidates get help collecting petition signatures and appear on the palm card, a boost for little-known judges listed at the bottom of the ballot.

In turn, slated candidates commit to raising $45,000 for the party’s campaign fund. And the candidates on Monday gave some variation on a loyalty oath sought from each, promising if they weren’t picked, they wouldn’t run against the party’s candidates.

The candidates gathered to appeal to the county’s Democratic committeepeople — a who’s who of local politics led by Preckwinkle and including numerous alderpeople and state legislators — over coffee and doughnuts at the Bronzeville hall of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 134.

The top contest was for the Illinois Supreme Court, where Democrats hold a 5-2 majority bolstered by the 2021 remap of the court’s districts signed by Gov. JB Pritzker. Democrats upped their majority one seat from 4-3 in last year’s expensive contests for two suburban seats.

State supreme court justices appointed Cunningham to fill the vacancy left by Anne M. Burke, who retired last year following the indictment of her husband — longtime Chicago alderman and power broker Edward Burke — on federal corruption charges.

Cunningham is running for a seat in the first district, which comprises Cook County, where Republicans pose little threat. Still, Cunningham said she plans to raise $3 million.

Illinois differs starkly from its more conservative neighbors that ban abortion or have looser gun laws, and Cunningham noted the judiciary’s role in preserving that status.

“Illinois is an oasis in the desert of red states,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s challenger, Reyes, sought the party stamp again after losing against the party-endorsed candidate in a 2020 bid to become the first Hispanic judge on the highest court. Reyes urged committee members to make history by giving Hispanic residents a “seat at the table of justice.”

“I’m merely a reflection of the Latino community’s dreams and aspirations of having a place on the bench of our state’s highest court,” said Reyes, who was endorsed by U.S. Reps. Jesus “Chuy” García and Delia Ramirez, both Chicago Democrats.

Cunningham, a former state appellate court justice and onetime president of the Chicago Bar Association, rejected that narrative in an interview, calling it divisive and saying she is a justice for all Ilinoians. On Monday, Cunningham introduced herself to the party as the daughter of immigrants from Panama and the Cayman Islands. Her father held two jobs, and she worked as a critical care nurse during law school, she said.

A group of mostly men in sports coats sit at rows of folding tables. On the left side, Toni Preckwinkle, a Black woman with grey hair in a navy suit, stands with a microphone in her hand to address slated candidates for judge.

Dan Hinkel

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a judicial endorsement session of the Cook County Democratic Party.

Preckwinkle spoke in favor of a handful of candidates Monday, and she took the microphone to say she has supported Cunningham since the 1990s.

“I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve supported you all these years and very grateful for your presence on the court,” said Preckwinkle.

The party also endorsed four candidates for appellate court races, including three judges who are already appointed to the court: Mary L. Mikva, Cynthia Y. Cobbs and Carl Anthony Walker. They also backed Cook County Circuit Judge Ramon Ocasio III to move to the higher court.

“I think that my service as a trial court judge for 17 years and my service as an advocate for equal justice throughout my legal career makes me appropriately suited to take on this immense responsibility,” Ocasio told the committee.

Of the 10 spots for the Cook County Circuit Court, nine endorsements went to candidates already serving appointments to the bench — Corinne Cantwell Heggie, Sarah Johnson, Deidre M. Dyer, Arlene Y. Coleman-Romeo, Neil H. Cohen, Edward J. Underhill, Debjani D. Desai, Chloe G. Pedersen and James S. Murphy-Aguilu.

The last endorsement went to Jennifer P. Callahan, who previously sought a seat on the bench and is the wife of 41st Ward committeeperson Joe Cook.

“I believe I’ll be a valuable asset to the party’s ticket during this election cycle,” Callahan said.

The party also endorsed a candidate to replace outgoing State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, choosing Preckwinkle-backed former assistant state’s attorney Clayton Harris III.

Injustice Watch senior reporter Maya Dukmasova contributed to this report.

Here is the full list of judicial candidates endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Party for the 2024 primary election.

For Illinois Supreme Court

Joy V. Cunningham

For Appellate Court 

Mary L. Mikva 

Cynthia Y. Cobbs

Carl Anthony Walker

Ramon Ocasio III

For Circuit Court 

Corinne Cantwell Heggie

Sarah Johnson

Deidre M. Dyer

Arlene Y. Coleman-Romeo

Neil H. Cohen

Edward J. Underhill

Debjani D. Desai

Chloe G. Pedersen

James S. Murphy-Aguilu