A group of African American elected officials, ministers, activists and attorneys are speaking out against the recent decision by the Illinois Supreme Court to replace a retiring subcircuit court judge who is an African American female and a resident of Austin with a white suburban woman who is a top staffer to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

Earlier this month, the state’s highest court picked Cara Smith, Dart’s chief policy advisor, to replace Judge Marianne Jackson on the Cook County 7th Subcircuit, which covers a significant part of Austin, Lawndale and Garfield Park, as well as West Suburbs like Forest Park, where Smith lives.   

Jackson, who retired last year, was appointed to the bench in 2014 to replace Judge Anthony Burrell, who died that year.

On June 14, the group of African American leaders, most of whom are from the West Side, gathered outside of the downtown office of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke to demand that Burke rescind Smith’s appointment. Burke is the wife of indicted Ald. Ed Burke (14th), who for years headed up the Cook County Democratic Party’s Judicial Slating Committee.

In January, after Ald. Burke was charged with attempted extortion, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the chair of the county Democratic Party, removed him from that post. Burke has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

But Ald. Burke’s downfall didn’t stop ministers and other leaders gathered outside of his wife’s downtown office from attaching him to the current controversy over Smith’s appointment.

“To see [Jackson], this black woman from the West Side, put on a judicial robe was so inspiring and comforting,” said Rev. Ira Acree, the pastor of the Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin and a co-chairman of the Leaders Network, a faith-based social justice organization based on the West Side.

“We will not sit idly by and allow the Burkes to once again disrespect our community and stagnate progress in Chicago and hinder race relations like they have in a history of doing.”

Anne Burke is one of three Supreme Court justices representing Cook County. The justices take turns nominating people to subcircuit vacancies. When Jackson retired, the decision to nominate her replacement revolved to Justice Burke, who announced in February that applications were open for the position.

According to a statement her office released on June 14, Justice Burke posted a vacancy notice on the Supreme Court’s website seeking applicants. Those applicants then submitted their applications to attorney Kevin Forde, the chairman of Burke’s Judicial Selection Committee.

The committee checked the candidates’ bar association evaluations and interviewed them before making a recommendation to Justice Burke, who also interviewed the qualified candidates.

“Once I make a selection, I nominate the qualified candidate to the full Supreme Court,” Burke explained in the statement. “Each member of the Supreme Court then submits a vote on the candidate.’

Burke said that Smith, who was found “qualified” by the Chicago Bar Association and “highly qualified” by the screening committee, garnered the vote of six Supreme Court Justices. Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville did not participate, Burke said.

According to Injustice Watch, Forde said that the committee had evaluated twelve applicants and interviewed five for the Jackson vacancy. He said that candidates — ‘a number’ of whom were white — were evaluated based on their abilities and personal and professional histories, but he added that the selection committee is not ‘colorblind.'”

The main evaluating criteria for the position was that nominees live in the 7th Subcircuit, be attorneys in good standing and be licensed to practice law in Illinois. According to Injustice Watch, Forde acknowledged that the “the committee was ‘fully aware’ of Smith’s lack of recent courtroom experience.”

In her statement, Justice Burke called the appointment process “fair and open.”

Opponents of Smith’s appointment, however, said that her ascension to the bench flies in the face of why the subcircuit system was created in the first place. Formed in the early 1990s, the subcircuit system is the result of an attempt to ensure that African Americans have more representation in judgeships within Cook County.

“Our experience with Justice Burke is that she has been a fair woman normally, but in this case, I think all of us feel that these subcircuit positions were created for diversity,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch Sr., the pastor of the New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Garfield Park.

“The face of justice matters,” Hatch said. “The cultural experience you bring to the bench matters and determines the measure of justice we can expect. We’ve seen in this town the incestuous relationship between the police and the justices on the bench.”

“As a judicial person who practices and has been in state and federal court, it matters who wears the robe,” said African American attorney Mable Taylor, a lifelong resident of the West Side. Taylor said that she didn’t apply for the subcircuit position, because she found out about the vacancy too late.

“We need diversity [on the bench], because we don’t want to see so many of our young, Black men locked up, when a person may be able to understand what goes on in the community,” she said.

“We are looking for diversity and someone who is among us to represent us,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), the chair of the Democratic Party’s 7th District subcircuit committee. “To say that there are no qualified individuals on the West Side of Chicago to take this seat … is a false narrative.”

In her statement, Justice Burke seemed to indicate that Ervin’s frustration with Smith’s appointment may be related to the fact that his preferred candidate, attorney Pamela Reaves-Harris, did not get the post.

Reaves-Harris won the 10th District Illinois House seat in 2014, but decided against running for reelection two years later. She was succeeded by Ald. Ervin’s wife, Melissa Conyears-Ervin, who held the House seat until she was elected City Treasurer this year.

Justice Burke said that Ald. Ervin came to her office in October 2018 and “asked me to appoint Pamela Reaves-Harris to an upcoming 7th Subcircuit vacancy.” Burke said that she let Ervin know that Reaves-Harris “was welcome to apply,” but that she would need to be reviewed by the screening committee.

When she applied, however, Reaves-Harris was found “Not Recommended” for the subcircuit seat due to her “limited practice and court experience,” which “would make it difficult for her to effectively serve as a Circuit Court judge.”

At the June 14 press conference, Ervin put the spotlight on Smith’s apparent lack of courtroom experience.

“What is Cara Smith’s record? What has she done [other than work for Tom Dart and Lisa Madigan as policy advisor]? It’s our job to bring people we feel are qualified, not that they feel are qualified.”

Attorney Patrick Dankwa John, an African American Austin resident who also applied for the 7th Subcircuit seat, said that he was found “qualified” by the Chicago Bar Association “and by most of the other ones,” but that he didn’t get a “call or an interview and I’ve been practicing law for 21 years.” John added that he Judge Jackson married him and his wife in 2014.  

“I found out on the news that Smith was appointed,” John said, adding that he’s poised to become the first Black, Christian president of the Jewish Bar next year. “How qualified do we have to be? There’s always a plus-one with us.”

Smith’s term was scheduled to begin on June 17 and ends next year. The activists and ministers at the June 14 press conference vowed to run a candidate against her in the 2020 election.

In a recent blog post about the Cara appointment, longtime Cook County attorney Jack Lehayne wrote that Springfield lawmakers could also jump into the conversation.

“Demographics have shifted in many parts of the county since 1990, including, in particular, in the 7th Subcircuit. But the subcircuit boundaries have remained unchanged since the subcircuit system was put in place,” Leyhane wrote. “These population shifts spurred the Illinois General Assembly, just this month, to pass HB 2625, requiring that the subcircuit boundary lines be redrawn after the 2020 census.”