Joy Cunningham knows a little something about making history.
The North Sider did that 8 years ago, becoming the first black woman president of the Chicago Bar Association. Her sights are set on another first and even higher position – becoming the first black woman ever elected to Illinois’ Supreme Court. Cunningham, who sits on the state’s Appellate Court, is running in the March 20 primary for the vacant Cook County seat on the high court.
Along with possibly making history, she also wants to provide of voice and perspective on the court she says has been lacking recently.
“I think it’s important that the Supreme Court of Illinois reflects the variety of experience of those it represents,” Cunningham said. “There are 13 million people in Illinois, and they have diverse backgrounds. I believe I bring a new perspective to the court that would benefit Illinois as a whole.”
Cunningham, who lives in the Andersonville neighborhood on the North Side, was inspired to run following the retirement of Justice Thomas Fitzgerald last year. The vacancy presented a rare opportunity for prospective candidates, given that justices are usually elected to 10-year terms and usually run unopposed. Normally, seats open up because of retirements, deaths or impeachment.
Cunningham has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-7th) and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. She’s running against four other challengers, including Mary Jane Theis, a sitting Supreme Court justice who was appointed to a two-tear term in 2010. Theis is considered the front-runner.
She has the backing of Fitzgerald, and since May 2011 has raised more than $830,000 for the primary, according to campaign finance records on file with the Illinois State Board of Elections. Since June 2011, Cunningham has raised $342,000, according to the state board. Cunningham nevertheless feels she is the best choice.
“This process has almost always been a fairly straightforward one, with the outgoing judge naming his successor, who is then appointed without a serious challenge,” she said.
“But I feel that the people should decide…It should not be a group of political figures handpicking a candidate to represent the interest of the entire state.”
Cunningham’s 35-year career began in her hometown of New York City. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the City University of New York, she moved to Chicago in the early 1980s and worked as a critical care nurse.
She later attended John Marshall Law School and served as Loyola University’s chief counsel for health care, and later as general counsel and senior vice president of the Northwestern Memorial Health Care System. She was elected the Illinois Appellate Court in 2006.
In 2004, Cunningham became the first black woman elected president of the 22,000-member Chicago Bar Association, the largest municipal bar association in the United States. She also serves on the board of directors of the Chicago Legal Clinic, which that provides legal counseling services to disadvantaged and underserved Chicago residents.
Its co-founder, Ed Grossman, says Cunningham’s experience in both the private and public sectors make her uniquely qualified for the Supreme Court.
“What separates her, I think, is the variety of experience she brings to the table,” he said. “She’s worked with businesses, she’s worked in management, she’s worked with average Americans and corporations. She is very well-rounded in her experience.”
A married mother of one, Cunningham said one of the most difficult aspects of campaigning is the amount of time she spends away from home. Her husband, she says, is very understanding of her schedule. But win or lose, she’s looking forward to spending more time with her family after the election.
“Campaigning is never easy, but I have a wonderful support system at home that has encouraged me every step of the way.”