First Black Justice on Illinois High Court Dies at 86

CHICAGO (CN) – Former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman, the first African American to serve on the state’s high court, died Monday. He was 86.

Freeman, who served on the top Illinois court from 1990 until his retirement in 2018, began his career in 1962 as a private attorney, going on to serve as Illinois assistant attorney general and Cook County assistant state’s attorney before winning election to the Cook County Circuit Court in 1976, where he served for 10 years. Freeman was also elected to the First District Appellate Court in 1986 before being elected to the Illinois Supreme Court with 62% of the vote in 1990.

The Illinois Supreme Court building in Springfield. (Alan Scott Walker/ Wikipedia)

During his time on the Cook County Circuit Court, Freeman became the first African American on the bench to swear in a Chicago mayor in 1983. That mayor, Harold Washington, was Chicago’s first black mayor.

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke said in a statement from the state high court Monday that she considered Freeman a close friend and mentor.

As a justice, Burke said Freeman “was a consensus builder and treated everyone equally and with respect.”

“Justice Freeman was also a trailblazer,” she continued. “He was the first African American to become a member of the court and the first African American Chief Justice, positions he held with dignity and integrity.”

The high court’s statement did not include a cause of death.

Born in Richmond, Virginia on Dec. 12, 1933, Freeman descended from slaves freed by Quakers before the Civil War. He earned his bachelor of arts degree from Virginia Union University in 1954 and his juris doctor from Chicago’s John Marshall Law School in 1962.

In 1994, Freeman wrote the Illinois high court’s majority opinion in the high-profile case of Rolando Cruz, overturning Cruz’s death sentence for the kidnapping, rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. Freeman found the jury heard improper evidence and wasn’t allowed to hear testimony that could have helped Cruz’s defense. Another man, Brian Dugan, later admitted to Nicarico’s murder and was sentenced to death before having his sentenced commuted to life in prison after Illinois abolished capital punishment in 2011. Cruz was pardoned by Governor George Ryan in 2002.

At the time of the ruling, Freeman said “we are duty bound…in preserving that very basic guarantee of our democratic society, that every person, however culpable, is entitled to a fair and impartial trial. We cannot deviate from the obligation of that role.”

Once asked about the significance of being the first black chief justice in Illinois, Freeman said it would not influence his assessment of the law, according to Monday’s statement.

“I’m an African American who now has become chief judge,” Freeman said. “I’m not an African American chief justice. I have no different perception on what course I would take because of my heritage.”

Burke described Freeman on Monday as a devoted family man, noting Freeman once told her that his wife, Marylee, would slip a love note into his suitcase every time he traveled to Springfield.

“I knew then that they had one of those storybook romances — everlasting,” Burke said.

Freeman is survived by his son, Kevin Freeman, two grandchildren and a brother in Virginia.

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