The so-called “black seat” on the Illinois Supreme Court is in jeopardy.
Although it’s called the “black seat,” it’s really one of seven seats on the state’s highest court.
But to hear those expressing concerns about the court’s future, it is in danger being of being filled by a white jurist, all to the detriment of nonwhite people.
The reasons behind the threat to the black seat will come to some as a bit of a surprise.
“Multiple people of color are running in the March Democratic primary, some who frame their racial identities as a crucial consideration for the only Illinois Supreme Court seat ever held by a nonwhite person,” states Injustia Watch in an article headlined “Diversity at stake in competitive Illinois Supreme Court race.”
The black seat on the high court became the black seat when former Justice Charles Freeman, the state’s first black justice, was elected in November 1990.
That kind of designation is nothing new. When Justice Louis Brandeis, a Jew, was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916, his position on the nine-member court was designated the “Jewish seat,” meaning a seat to be allocated going forward to a member of the Jewish faith.
The same rule was applied when Thurgood Marshall, the first black man, Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman, and Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic, were appointed in 1967, 1981 and 2009, respectively. But those labels can vanish quickly, because filling judicial seats — whether by appointment, as with the federal courts, or by election, like in Illinois — is really a matter of politics.
And it’s politics, as expressed through increased political maturity displayed by those relatively new to the process and competing interests, that threaten the status quo in Illinois.
Now 85, Freeman retired from the court in June 2018. He was replaced by a temporary appointee, Justice P. Scott Neville Jr.
Neville is running for the Democratic nomination in the March 2020 primary, but so are seven other candidates.
Neville has been annointed as the party’s favored candidate, but party bosses were unable to clear the field to guarantee his nomination.
Clearing the field is crucial because of Cook County’s longstanding embrace of tribal politics in which powerful offices were divided by party bosses among representatives of powerful ethnic groups.
It’s not the number of Neville’s competitors that is the problem. There are four white candidates in the race — appellate Justices Sheldon Harris and Margaret McBride and lawyers Clinton Krislov and Daniel Epstein.
If it was just them, Neville’s victory would be guaranteed. The white candidates would divide the white vote while all of the black vote would go to Neville.
In the case of this seat, personal ambition overcame ethnic loyalty. Neville has two black opponents — appellate court Justices Cynthia Cobb and Nathaniel R. Howse.
Plus, there’s another minority group that’s pounding on the door.
“I truly believe we’ll have diversity when we put a Latino on the highest bench,” said Cook County politico Joseph Berrios.
He’s backing Appellate Justice Jesse Reyes for the party’s nomination.
Because Cook County is overwhelmingly Democratic, no Republican is running. The winner of the Democratic primary is guaranteed to win in November 2020.
But with eight candidates, it’s anybody guess as to what will happen in March.
Neville has the party’s political muscle behind him. Will that be enough?
Are Hispanics now enough of a force to nominate Reyes? Will well-heeled white candidates like Harris and McBride carry the day by blanketing the airwaves with political advertising?
Cook County controls three of the seven seats on the high court; the other two Cook County seats are occupied by Justices Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis, two white women.
There was a time when one, or perhaps both, of those seats might have been designated as allocated to the type of person who held them. But those days are changing, as the free-for-all for Freeman’s old seat demonstrates.