Jury’s out on who should hold seat on state’s top court, according to campaign poll

Jury’s out on who should hold seat on state’s top court, according to campaign poll

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The three African American appellate court justices running for the seat were trailing other candidates, according to the poll, but with survey’s error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points essentially made the race a dead heat between most of the candidates.

No clear frontrunner has emerged in a hotly contested race for a seat on the state’s Supreme Court, despite one candidate’s high six-figure spending on TV ads and others touting their connections to the trailblazing jurist whose seat they are seeking to fill.

Those are the findings of a campaign poll commissioned by one of the candidates in the seven-candidate race, which has sparked debate about the importance of diversity on the bench because the seat was previously held by Justice Charles Freeman, the only African American ever elected to the state’s stop court.

The three African American appellate court justices running for the seat were trailing other candidates, according to the poll, but with survey’s error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points essentially made the race a dead heat between most of the candidates.

No one topped 16%. And the largest share of voters — 25% — were undecided.

Statistically tied for first place were Appellate Court Justice Sheldon “Shelly” Harris, with 15.2%, lawyer Daniel Epstein — whose campaign commissioned the poll —with 12.9% and Appellate Court Justice Jesse Reyes with 12.1%.

Harris and Epstein are white. If he is elected, Reyes would the first Hispanic justice on the state’s top court.

Appellate Court Justice Margaret McBride, who is also white, came next with 11.2%, followed by state Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., an African American jurist who was appointed to Freeman’s seat, with 9.5%. Both McBride and Neville were also within the margin of error for first place.

Just a few percentage points behind were the other two African American candidates —Appellate Court Justices Nathaniel Howse Jr. and Cynthia Cobbs, with 8.1% and 6.1%, respectively.

Illinois Appellate Justices Cynthia Cobbs, left, and Nathaniel Roosevelt Howse, center, and Illinois Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file
Illinois Appellate Justices Cynthia Cobbs, left, and Nathaniel Roosevelt Howse, center, and Illinois Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr.

The poll of 1,000 randomly selected likely Democratic primary voters was conducted by Victory Research, a firm led by Rod McCulloch, a former Republican strategist who has said he’s an independent pollster with more Democratic than Republican clients.

Harris did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but his lead in the race could be driven by his television advertising. The appellate judge has spent $711,100 on ads on WGN, CBS2 and NBC5, records show.

Epstein said he and his campaign “have paced ourselves perfectly to rise to this moment.”

“Our secret has been to treat this not just as a political campaign, but an educational one that empowers people by teaching how our justice system works, where it’s falling short, and how the Supreme Court can fix it,” Epstein said in a statement. “We’re poised to succeed because ours is the only campaign proposing systemic reform and because we empower people everywhere we go.”

Daniel Epstein, Illinois Supreme Court? Democratic primary candidate.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Daniel Epstein, Illinois Supreme Court? Democratic primary candidate.

Spokespeople for Reyes, Neville and Howse were not immediately available for comment. Cobbs did not wish to comment.

Neville, Howse and Cobbs are all vying to become the second African American elected to the state’s top bench. Freeman, who died last week. served 28 years on the state Supreme Court before he retired in 2018.

Some of the candidates hoping to succeed Freeman have previously offered differing opinions on the importance of diversity on the bench.

McBride supports diversity on the bench and said, as a woman, she represents a much-needed aspect of diversity.

Harris previously said “I don’t believe that we need a black person on the Supreme Court to show that we’re diverse.”

“The question is, how is that person — white, green, whatever — what is that person doing with the lower court to expand diversity, and I intend to create my own committee of prominent lawyers past judges, regardless of race, whatever, to make recommendations as to appointments,” Harris said. “You don’t need a black person on the Supreme Court to show that our Supreme Court is concerned with diversity.”

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