• Ben Szalinski
    FEB 15, 2024


    Cunningham, Reyes match up experience in fight over Supreme Court seat  

    Cook County Appellate Court Judge Jesse Reyes, left, and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Joy Cunningham, right, are running for the First District Supreme Court seat. [Reyes Campaign & Illinois Supreme Court]  

    What is the right mix of experience and diversity? That’s the question Cook County Democratic primary voters are being asked as Appellate Court Judge Jesse Reyes and incumbent Supreme Court Justice Joy Cunningham try to win over voters in the 1st Supreme Court District.  

    Cunningham was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2022 to fill the vacancy left by retiring Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke. Under state law, appointed justices run through the regular election process in the election cycle following their appointment, unlike most incumbent judges that go up for a retention vote every few years. Cunningham is being challenged by Reyes, a longtime attorney and Cook County judge who is often visible in the community, especially among Latinos.  

    Reyes has focused his message on the need to have a Latino on the high court. Illinois has never had a Latino Supreme Court justice, and Reyes argues it’s past time to change that.   

    “It matters from the perspective of bringing a voice to the court, a voice that hasn’t been heard on the Illinois Supreme Court,” Reyes told The Daily Line. “The Latino community is 29 percent of the population … in Cook County.”  

    Reyes unsuccessfully ran for another Supreme Court opening in 2020. That time, the Cook County Democratic Party supported now-Justice P. Scott Neville. This time, the party is backing Cunningham over Reyes.   

    Cunningham, the second Black woman to serve on the court, told The Daily Line the campaign should be about experience, not race.   

    “I think to suggest that our Supreme Court is not diverse because it does not have a Latino on it, in many respects really makes no sense,” Cunningham said. “I think when the court was completely male and completely white, then you could call it a non-diverse court. But now it has five women; it has three Black people. Justice Reyes’ argument taken to its logical extreme would mean that every single ethnic group in Illinois should have a representative on the court. And of course that’s impossible.”  

    “Our focus really should be on experience and credentials,” Cunningham said.  


    But for the court to properly administer justice, Reyes said it needs to reflect the state’s population, and especially the large and fast-growing Latino population.   

    “I think when you look at the growing population in our state, I think you have to kind of look at, ‘OK, we want to make sure we’re reflective of the population’ and I think that’s key,” Reyes said.   

    As the pair also fight for endorsements, Cunningham argued she’s already received the highest endorsement in the contest: her fellow Supreme Court justices who appointed her to the court in 2022. She said that outweighs any race-based argument.   

    “I was appointed because of my credentials and my competency, and I happen to be a Black woman,” Cunningham said. “But I don’t feel that my sphere of influence or my focus is on only the Black population.”  

    Reyes admitted he’s in a different position than he is used to without the backing of the Cook County Democratic Party, which has slated him in other elections for the appellate court.   

    “You have to realize there are going to be some people who are not going to support you, not going to give you an opportunity to be heard,” Reyes said.   

    Reyes out-fundraised Cunningham in the final quarter of 2023 by bringing in $157,295 to raise his campaign account’s balance to $117,414. Since Jan. 1, he has reported an additional $22,500 from contributions of $1,000 or more.   

    Cunningham brought in $141,101 in the final quarter of 2023 to boost her campaign account to $285,747. She has raised more than Reyes since Jan. 1, however, and reported an additional $172,000 of fundraising from contributions of $1,000 from donors such as attorneys, law firms and handful of labor unions.   

    Cunningham first worked as a nurse to help her pay her way through law school. Then she was an attorney for Northwestern Memorial Health Care before being elected to the Cook County appellate court in 2006.  

    “Being a nurse has taught me so many qualities that I can use as a judge,” Cunningham said. “It’s taught me patience.”  

    It’s a different kind of experience that Reyes thinks makes him a more attractive candidate. In his capacity as a Cook County judge, Reyes said he has been involved in many of the intricacies of the judicial system, from ensuring processes are in place to implement the SAFE-T Act to creating informational programs so people know what to expect when they come to court.   

    “I don’t wait for the problem to come to us or to me,” Reyes said. “I look ahead in terms of ‘OK, how can we provide better access to justice for everybody?’ And if I see that there’s going to be a difficulty and a problem, then I try to address it.”   

    Reyes said he also brings statewide experience as the former president of the Illinois Judges Association.   

    Cunningham doesn’t disagree with that philosophy and said her experience handling administrative issues as a Supreme Court justice is why she’s better qualified for the job. In addition to hearing and ruling on cases, the Supreme Court and the justices also play a large administrative role overseeing Illinois’ court system.   

    “The Supreme Court really is the head of the third branch of government and there’s only seven of us,” Cunningham said. “We have learned, and if you didn’t know it before you came to the Supreme Court, you certainly learned quickly, how to be a really good administrator because we have to divide up the responsibilities among the seven of us for the oversight of the court system and that is a huge job.”   

    When it comes to deciding cases, both judges said they take a careful look at how their decisions would impact the parties of the case and society overall.   

    “I always remember that there’s a person, a real person, on the other end of whatever the issue may be … This is not just an academic exercise,” Cunningham said.  

    Reyes said that philosophy guides how he writes his opinions.   

    “I want to make sure that the people understand what’s going on in their courtrooms, they’re able to understand my decisions,” Reyes said. “I don’t use a lot of fancy Latin words; I don’t use a lot of multi-syllable words. I try to keep it in plain language for everybody to understand.”  

    The Illinois Supreme Court has taken up several big political issues from the SAFE-T Act to the assault weapons ban. Both candidates said judges need to put aside their partisan and personal views when making decisions in those cases. Cunningham specifically said she is a big believer in stare decisis — the principle that prior legal decisions should be followed and serve as a guide.   

    “We’ve had couple cases where … I would’ve ruled another way, but the statute was so clear this is the way I had to rule,” Cunningham said.   

    Both candidates view the Illinois Supreme Court as a guard for abortion rights. The issue hasn’t come before the court since Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, but under different political circumstances in Illinois, the Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturning Roe has increased the likelihood of the Illinois Supreme Court issuing abortion rulings in the future.  

    “I think we are an oasis in a desert of conservative and red states, and I feel very honored to be serving on the Supreme Court that is guarding this oasis very carefully,” Cunningham said.   

    “There are forces from the outside that are going to start trying to push in on Illinois and so we have to be ready to address those issues,” Reyes said.  

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