The Honorable P. Scott Neville, Jr. is the 117th judge to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court and the second African-American justice in its 170-year history.
Neville is an experienced and highly respected member of the bench and was a unanimous choice to succeed Justice Charles E. Freeman, the first African American to serve on the state’s highest court, who retired June 14, 2018 after serving 27 years on the Court.
Neville has had a 44-year legal career. He received his law degree from Washington University’s School of Law and was the first African-American man to clerk for a Cook County Appellate Justice.
He has actively been practicing law since 1974, specializing in appellate, employment, civil rights and complex civil litigation. He has been a Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School in its Intensive Trial Practice Workshop and has received numerous awards.
N’DIGO recently sat with Justice Neville and discussed how his law career started and other interests.
N’DIGO: How did you become interested in law?
P. Scott Neville: My father and uncle were attorneys. I have been interested in law all of my life.
You are a graduate of DuSable High School and Forestville, both public schools in the Third Ward. You attended the same schools as the late Mayor Harold Washington. What has changed in schools since that time?
Forestville no longer exists. There were 1,000 students in my freshman class at DuSable and there were 4,000 students in the entire school. Today there are two or three small schools in the school and no more than 500 in the entire school as a result of the demolishing of public housing.
You have always been on the battlefield for African American causes. Talk about your work with Judge R. Eugene Pincham.
Pincham got me involved with assisting in advising legislators in Springfield. We were interested in legislators to change and diversify the Cook County Bench. Heretofore, judges were elected city wide or countywide. With an at large election there were always more white judges than blacks.
This was the subcircuit legislation that resulted in the creation of four Black subcircuits and two Latino subcircuits. This was based on population by district. There were 15 subcircuits and they each had 22 judges. There are approximately 55 African-American judges.
This legislation resulted in an increase in non-white judges. We have more elected judges in Illinois than any state in the U.S. per capita. That legislation was perhaps the most significant in my lifetime. It was and has had a very important affect.
As a judge, what has been your most important case?
The People vs. Dimitri Buffer. The case was of a kid who was 16 years old and committed murder and was treated as an adult. I ruled in this case that receiving a sentence that exceeds 40 years is a de facto life sentence, which is unconstitutional.
What do we need to do to get people to the polls to vote?
Only a third of the population is voting. Citizens have two responsibilities. The first is to vote and the second is to serve on juries. There are duties of citizenship. Any citizen who fails to meet his responsibility must suffer the consequences. One consequence is, if you don’t vote for a judge, you should not be surprised with the decision you get. If you fail to serve as a juror, you are abdicating your responsibility on right or wrong, because you are not participating. We lose a lot when we don’t participate. People died for us to vote.
How does the Supreme Court function different from other courts?
The Illinois Constitution cannot make a decision without the concurrence of four judges. The Supreme Court has the power to enter any order that it feels is just.
Who are your mentors?
Justice Glenn Johnson; he gave me my first jobs. Justice R. Eugene Pincham, whom I practiced with, and Justice Charles Freeman, who retired so I could replace him.
What do you do for leisure?
Read. I read legal books exclusively and do political reading.
Do you like being a lawyer or a judge best?
I have enjoyed being a judge because of the power to influence the decisions that govern people’s lives.
If you could, what law would you change or make?
What we need to do is improve the process of diversifying the bench. I consider my greatest accomplishment to be the creation of the Alliance of Bar Association. Prior to 1998, the only bar association was the all-white Chicago Bar Association. By having a vetting group that is diverse, you are more likely to get a more diverse bench. It is important to see people who look like you. I co-founded the Alliance.
What’s on your playlist?
I love jazz, and rhythm and blues. Nat King Cole, Lou Rawls, Sarah Vaughn, Nancy Willson and Jerry Butler.
What’s your favorite movie?
How do you pay it forward?
I received a scholarship for my college career. I have a commitment to provide scholarships for students. I have a succession plan. We must mentor and look for those to follow us.