By Chinta Strausberg
Illinois Appellate Court Justice Joy Cunningham has a vision –– to be elected as the first Black female Illinois Supreme Court justice since the state’s High Court was created in 1818.
She believes that her diversified experience will help her cross the finish line come the primary on March 20, 2012 and then the general election in November.
Illinois is divided into five judicial districts, both for the Appellate and the Supreme Courts.
The state Supreme Court is currently comprised of one African-American man, Justice Charles Freeman, who has been on the High Court since 1990, three White men, and three White women.
Due to its large population, three of the seven justices are elected from Cook County, which is called the First Judicial District, and one each comes from the other four districts. Cunningham is running for a Cook County (First District) seat, to replace retiring Justice Thomas Fitzgerald.
Cunningham calls the Supreme Court “the ultimate safety net for the court system, and therefore, for the state of Illinois.”
Referring to the three branches of government, she believes that the judiciary is the most important, “yet is the one most citizens pay the least attention to.”
Cunningham says, “I think that is unfortunate because judges make decisions every day that so profoundly affect our lives on a very basic level –– from the taxes you pay on your gas bill to whether or not your child can attend a particular school.
“All of these kinds of judicial decisions impact the lives of ordinary people, yet most people cannot name the seven justices of the Illinois Supreme Court…who impact 13 million people. It is a very important job. It is the ultimate safety net, the ultimate legal policy maker, the ultimate judicial arbiter for the state,” she explained.
The initial term on the Supreme Court for a justice is 10 years. At the end of 10 years, justices do not run for contested elections, but rather for retention vote.
The electorate must vote “yes” or “no” and the incumbent must get 60 percent of the vote. Cunningham says that over the last 100 years, to her knowledge, no one has lost the retention vote, so it’s potentially a job for a long time.
If she wins, Illinois will become the first state to have two Black Supreme Court justices at the same time by her joining Freeman.
Currently, only four other states –– Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia –– have a Black female Supreme Court Justice, and the only other woman to run for the position in Illinois, Blanche Manning, was unsuccessful in her bid in 1990.
A “First” Lady
Being a first is nothing new to Cunningham.
When the French, Rogers, Kezelis & Kominiarek law firm hired the now 60-year-old Cunningham, she was the first African American they employed.
“By the time I left, I was the highest billing associate,” Cunningham says. “When I went back to the firm to visit, there were Black lawyers and it made me feel good…it wasn’t a big deal anymore because that barrier had already been broken.”
In 2004, she became the first African-American woman elected president of the Chicago Bar Association, which has 22,000 members and is the largest municipal bar association in America.
Growing up in New York as a focused student, Cunningham followed in her mother’s and older sister’s footsteps by earning her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing at City University of New York. She became a critical care registered nurse.
“I always think of my nursing degree as training for life,” she said during an interview on the PCC Network’s The Strausberg Report.
When Cunningham came to Chicago, she worked nights as a registered nurse in the Surgical Heart Unit at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston and other hospitals, but decided to enroll in John Marshall Law School.
“It was a great opportunity for me in that I could attend school as a full-time day student. I worked evenings or nights only on the weekends and because I had critical care experience, I was able to earn enough money to support myself,” she explained.
“The night shift is very undesirable for most nurses, but for me it was highly desirable because it gave me the opportunity to do my studies in the day time. It was a win-win situation for that period of time.”
Once Cunningham became a lawyer, she joined the Illinois Attorney General’s office in 1982, where she worked as an Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Litigation Department. She called it a great opportunity and at least one of the lawyers she worked with in that department has now gone on to become a judge, as she is.
While she worked in the Attorney General’s office, the late Justice Glenn Johnson, the first African American to sit on the Illinois Appellate Court, hired Cunningham as his law clerk and she left the Attorney General’s office to work for him.
“It was a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “He gave me my start in my legal life. Being his law clerk was an opportunity to immerse myself in law in a pure way and see what an appellate court judge does.”
Cunningham said Johnson required his law clerks to join the Chicago Bar Association. When she asked him why, she said he explained, “Early in my lifetime, the Chicago Bar Association wasn’t open to me because they didn’t accept Blacks and Jews. The minute that changed, I joined because I believe it is better to change the infrastructure of bigotry from the inside.”
She will never forget when Justice Johnson jokingly told her, “One day you may be president of that organization.” Twenty-years later, Cunningham achieved that goal.
Jumping In To A Tough Race
She has come full circle from the time she was a law clerk to being an Appellate Court Justice herself today.
In 1996, Cunningham was selected to serve as a Cook County Associate Court judge. A decade later, she was elected to the Illinois Appellate Court after winning a tough five-way primary.
She currently serves on the Illinois Appellate Court’s 1st District, 2nd Division, as well as on the Appellate Court’s Executive Committee. Cunningham has consistently earned “qualified” and “highly qualified” bar association ratings, and for this election, has received a rating of “highly qualified” from the Chicago Bar Association.
Her mentors, other than Johnson, were the late Justice Thurgood Marshall and the late Illinois Appellate Court Justice R. Eugene Pincham. “Nobody got where they are by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps…and I really believe that,” Cunningham says.
Referring to Pincham, Cunningham called him “an icon in the legal community who was very instrumental in my being on the Appellate Court and other career decisions I have made over the years.”
Asked what advice Pincham gave her, Cunningham said when she ran for the Illinois Appellate Court six years ago she sought slating from the Democratic Party.
“The Party chose not to support me, and I was told by one of the committeemen that it was not my turn,” she recalled.
Cunningham said she was not surprised at his remarks and while she says she is not very political, she’s been around Chicago long enough to understand that, “Deals are made that have nothing to do with credentials or the right thing. It has to do with other things. I truly did not take it personally. I realized that I was not part of the insider infrastructure. When they were saying it wasn’t my turn, in their world, it was true.”
She said Justice Pincham told her, “Well, for African Americans, if we waited for people to tell us when it’s our time, we’d still be picking cotton.” Cunningham said, “It had a certain humorous ring to it, but at the same time it struck me as being so profoundly true.”
Cunningham ran what she calls an “intense grassroots campaign” and won by a narrow margin of 510 votes. “It was probably the narrowest margin for an Appellate Court victory in Illinois history, but Justice Pincham said it doesn’t matter. I won and that’s true. I won because I mounted a grassroots campaign.
“No one voted for me by accident,” she added. “I had the worse ballot position. My name was buried in the middle of five names, and I won that election because I had done the work of educating my core group of supporters so they looked for my name on the ballot and they voted for me.”
Cunningham is doing the same thing in “round two” and said she expects to maximize what she did to win the Appellate Court in the Supreme Court race.
When she was in seventh grade, Cunningham won the spelling bee for the Borough of Manhattan and hasn’t stop winning ever since. “I just do what comes naturally…and you just keep moving forward,” she says.
She mentors youth and often tells them “everything they are doing now is preparing them for their next opportunity.” She also lives by her own advice –– “You don’t always know what that (opportunity) is until it knocks on the door.”
Cunningham did an extensive amount of pro bono work when she was a lawyer, including in the 1980s during the President Ronald Reagan era when people were kicked off the Medicaid rolls.
Especially for those who had mental health problems, she fought on their behalf and had their benefits restored. “I was, in fact, their safety net and that was very gratifying,” she says.
The knowledge and skills she acquired in the integration of health care and law in those early years of her career provided a solid foundation for a long and successful career for Cunningham in the business world for quite a while.
She served as Loyola University’s Chief Counsel for Health Care and later as General Counsel and Senior VP for the Northwestern Memorial Health Care System.
But her decision to leave the highest ranks of senior management in the corporate world and pursue a new career as a judge marked a turning point in her commitment to the welfare of others.
Cunningham also once did pro bono work for the Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers program. She went to the jails and provided clothing for the incarcerated women.
She taught them what to wear in court, how to understand what was going on with their cases, what kinds of questions to ask their attorneys, and how to find out about the status of their children.
Cunningham has also done a lot of work for her church, preparing wills and powers of attorney for seniors.
She is the mother of one son enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools and lives with her husband and son on the North Side of Chicago. With five marathons under her belt, she is also an avid hiker and skier.
Asked what the driving force is that keeps her pushing for higher heights, Cunningham said, “This is bigger than just me. I have had many firsts…we all sit on other peoples’ shoulders and my shoulders will be the shoulders that the next generation will stand on.
“But this is an historic opportunity,” she said of her race for the Illinois Supreme Court, explaining that it will “open the doors of opportunity for others who want to dream that dream as well.”
(N’DIGO Editor David Smallwood contributed to this story.)