Freeman, Charles 1933–
Charles Freeman 1933–
State Supreme Court Justice
On May 12, 1997, the justices of the Illinois Supreme Court made a historic decision—but this time, no defendants or plaintiffs were involved. Rather than deciding the outcome of a court case, they were choosing which of their colleagues would become chief justice. In a near-unanimous vote, they elected Charles E. Freeman, making him the first African American to be chief justice of the state’s highest court.
It was not Freeman’s only “first” in the Illinois judicial system. In 1990, he had become the first African American elected to the state’s supreme court. “He’s talented, quiet, and unassuming,” R. Eugene Pincham, who served with Freeman on the Illinois Appellate Court, was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune. “Probably only 20 percent of the black population of Chicago even knows he’s on the Supreme Court.… He’s a behind-the-scenes force, not an adamant, dogmatic, outgoing rabble-rouser,” he added.
According to Bob Sector and Christi Parsons, writing in the Chicago Tribune, “Freeman is hardly a household name in Illinois, yet he has figured in some of the most historic moments in local black political empowerment.” These moments included the successes of others as well as himself. In 1983, as a Circuit Court judge, Freeman administered the oath of office to Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor, and Freeman’s former law partner.
Charles Eldridge Freeman was born on December 12, 1933 in Richmond, Virginia. He was the son of William Isaac Freeman and Jeanette Rena Winston Freeman. In 1954, Freeman earned a B.A. in liberal arts from Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. From 1956 to 1958, during the Korean War, he served in the US Army as a courts and boards reporter. Freeman married Marylee Voelker on August 12, 1958 (according to one source, August 27, 1960); the couple has one son, Kevin, who was born in 1969.
After the war, Freeman moved to Chicago, where he earned his law degree at John Marshall Law School in 1962. From 1959 to 1964, he worked as a property and insurance consultant for the Cook County Department of Public Aid. Freeman was admitted to practice in Illinois in 1962, and set up a legal office in Chicago, where he specialized in divorce and real estate work. For many years, his law partner was Harold Washington,
Born Charles Eldridge Freeman, December 12, 1933, Richmond, VA; son of William Isaac Freeman and Jeanette Rena Winston Freeman; married Marylee Voelker, August 27, 1960; one son, Kevin. Education: Virginia Union Univ., B.A. in liberal arts, 1954; John Marshall Law School, J.D., 1962. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Presbyterian.
Career: Property and insurance consultant, Cook County Dept. of Public Aid, 1959-64; Asst attorney general, 1964; Asst. state’s attorney, 1964; Asst. attorney, Bd. of Election Commissioners, 1964-65; Arbitrator, IL Industrial Commission, 1965-73; Commissioner, IL Commerce Commission, 1973-76 Elected to Circuit Court of Cook County, 1976; First District of IL Appellate Court, 1986-90; Justice, IL Supreme Court, 1990-; Chief Justice, IL Supreme Court, 1997-.
Selected awards: Chosen to administer oath of office during swearing-in ceremonies for Harold Washington, Mayor of Chicago, 1983, 1987; honorary LL.D, John Marshall Law School, 1992; Kenneth E.Wilson Award, Certificate of Merit, Ida Piatt Award, Presidential Award and Judicial Award from Cook County Bar Assn.; Earl B. Dickerson Award from Chicago Bar Assn.; Cornelius Francis Stradford Award from the State’s Attorney of Cook County; Kenneth Wilson Memorial Award and Guardians Award of Appreciation; Certificate of Achievement from Intl. Christian Fellowship Missions.
Member: Bar Associations of Chicago, Cook County, DuPage County and IL; IL Judges Assn.; Judicial Council of IL; American Judges Assn.; American Judicature Soc; Third Ward Democratic Headquarters; Ralph H. Metcalfe Youth Fund; Garfield Park Community Growth Center (Bd. of Dirs.; Englewood Businessmen and Civic League (Past VP); Conference to Fulfill These Rights (Bd. of Dirs.), Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.
Addresses: Home —Chicago, IL. Office —Supreme Court of Illinois, 160 N. LaSalleStreet, Room N2104, Chicago, IL 60601.
who would later become the first African American mayor of Chicago.
In addition to his private practice, Freeman held a wide variety of government positions, serving as assistant attorney general, as a prosecutor for Cook County, and as an attorney for the Board of Election Commissioners. In 1965, he became an arbitrator for the Illinois Industrial Commission, which hears worker’s compensation disputes.
In 1973, Freeman was appointed to the Illinois Commerce Commission, the state agency that reviews utility rates. In that position, he became the target of a newspaper investigation; it was revealed that he regularly used complimentary passes provided by railroads that were regulated by the commission. The practice was not illegal, and Freeman defended it as “an entitlement,” as quoted in the Chicago Tribune. The controversy did not prevent Freeman from being elected to the Cook County Circuit Court three years later, in 1976.
That same year, Freeman gave up his private practice. He still maintained close ties with his former law partner, Washington, however. When Washington was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983 and again in 1987, Freeman was chosen to administer the oath of office during the swearing-in ceremonies; he was the first African American to do so. For Freeman, it was one of the highest honors he had received in his career.
In 1984, Freeman joined the race for a seat on the Illinois Appellate Court, which serves as the first check on the legal and factual decisions of trial judges. Although he won the backing of the Democratic Party, he was defeated by former Chicago Mayor Michael Bilan-dic.
Two years later, Freeman ran for the court a second time, again with the support of the Democratic Party; he also won an endorsement from the Chicago Tribune, which praised his “strong reputation.” This time, Freeman won the election, and served on the appellate court for four years.
In 1990, the voters of Illinois faced a historic election: three of the justices on the state’s supreme court were retiring. Unlike US Supreme Court justices—who are appointed to their positions for life—Illinois Supreme Court justices are elected, and their terms run for just ten years, with mandatory retirement at age 75.
Freeman decided to join the race for one of the two seats from Cook County, an area which includes Chicago. During the campaign, he stressed his experience and his productivity as an appellate judge; but he also said he thought it was important for an African American to run for the court. In the supreme court race, Freeman again had the support of the Democratic Party—though its support was almost a disadvantage in this case. For the last two decades, candidates backed by the party had lost contested primaries in Cook County.
Still, in March of 1990, Freeman defeated three other candidates to become the Democratic candidate for the seat. “I believe voters looked at me without regard to race and thought me a viable candidate,” Freeman told the Chicago Tribune. “The Democratic Party reached out for qualified candidates this time, which was a break with the tradition of cronyism that, I think, may have caused the party-endorsed candidates to lose in the past,” he added.
According to a profile of candidates that appeared six months later in the Chicago Tribune, Freeman was a self-described “judicial moderate.” During a candidates forum sponsored by the Chicago Bar Association, Freeman said that he would consider overturning the death penalty in Illinois. While he expressed respect for the legal principle that past decisions should serve as precedents in future cases, he said, “I believe that if cases come before the Supreme Court again—and certainly they will—testing the constitutionality of the death penalty, that I would again look at the constitutionality of the current statute,” he was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune.
Among Freeman’s many backers was the Chicago Tribune, which listed him in its endorsements for the state’s supreme court. “He has the confidence to say he wouldn’t be a justice for defendants or a justice for victims. He would just be fair-minded,” the editorial board wrote. “He has a deep respect for the law and a keen understanding of the need to streamline the state’s judicial system. He would be an excellent choice for the seat opened by the retirement of Justice Seymour Simon,” they continued.
On November 6, 1990, Freeman—along with Michael Bilandic and former appellate judge James Heiple—was elected to a ten-year term on the Illinois Supreme Court. During the swearing-in ceremony, Freeman acknowledged his unique role as the first African American justice on the state’s highest court. “To each decision and policy, I bring a unique background to a diverse and distinguished court,” he was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune. “I hope to implement those changes that were so long in coming as was the election of an African American to this court.”
Freeman also promised to push for administrative changes. “I believe as much attention should be focused on administering this court system as is placed on our judicial decisions,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “The public perception of the judicial branch of government is at an all-time low. We must address that perception,” he continued.
Freeman offered a long list of possible changes that the court, with its three new members, should discuss. These proposals included changing the way judges are selected; requiring lawyers to do some free legal work for the poor; allowing cameras in the courtrooms during trials; and hearing oral arguments for some cases in Chicago rather than in Springfield, the state’s capital.
Seven years later, the Illinois Supreme Court was embroiled in controversy. James Heiple, who had recently been chosen by the court to be chief justice, was accused of trying to use his position to avoid traffic tickets; an Illinois House committee was investigating the case, to determine if he should be impeached. Heiple appeared to be protecting himself from such charges by appointing a close friend to chair the Illinois Courts Commission, the body in charge of disciplinary proceedings.
During the investigation, Freeman had been openly critical of Heiple, a former ally on the court. In a letter to his fellow justices, he wrote, “It may very well appear to some that this court is more concerned with the grabbing of power and control that it is with the public’s perception and the integrity of this court. In the words of Thurgood Marshall, … ‘we must never forget that the only real source of power that we as judges can tap is the respect of the people’” (quoted in the Chicago Tribune).
On May 2, after being censured by the Illinois Courts Commission, and still under threat of impeachment, Heiple resigned his position. Despite the fact that Freeman had testified against him during the investigation, it was Heiple, along with former Chief Justice Michael Bilandic, who nominated Freeman for the top post. Freeman was elected chief justice by six of his seven colleagues on May 12, 1997, with one justice abstaining from the initial vote. That justice registered his vote the following day, making the decision unanimous.
Though symbolically significant, the chief justice position on the Illinois court—which runs for three years—is not as powerful as the top job in many other states or on the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. chief justice, if in the majority, can assign the writing of court opinions, a power that can strongly influence the tone of rulings. The Illinois chief justice does not have that authority; instead, the job mainly entails administrative oversight of judicial assignments and the annual budget.
One of his top priorities as chief justice, Freeman told the Chicago Tribune, would be to repair the battered reputation of the Illinois judicial system. “The judiciary kind of thrives on and survives on the respect that the public gives it, and without that respect, our ability to function and administer the court system becomes little more difficult,” he was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune.
“He has a reputation of being a very solid judge, a very competent judge,” Jeffrey Shaman, law professor at Chicago’s DePaul University, was quoted as saying in a Chicago Tribune article about Freeman’s appointment. “His opinions are well crafted. He’s intelligent. He’s respected in the legal community.”
Politically, Freeman tends to be on the liberal side, according to Shaman. “I think that he probably more often than any justice dissents in criminal cases on the side of protecting” the rights of the accused, he told the Chicago Tribune. As well as his years of experience in the Illinois judicial system, he also brings other strengths to the job, he was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune: “I’m patient. I’ll listen. I’m open to suggestions. I don’t bruise easily.”
Freeman has received numerous awards from the Chicago, Cook County, and American Bar Associations, including recognition for his work helping minorities in the profession. He received an honorary LL.D. from his alma mater, John Marshall Law School, in 1992.
In his spare time, Freeman pursues several hobbies, which include photography and collecting cameo glass and soapstone. On weekends during the summer, he enjoys spending time on his motorboat in Lake Michigan. Giving back to the community is also one of his priorities; he sits on the board of directors of several community organizations, and gives inspirational lectures to young people.
In February of 1998, Freeman spoke to a group of African American high school students at Shell Youth Training Academy in southside Chicago. “If you want something and you think it’s worth getting, you reach for it,” he told the group (quoted in the Chicago Tribune) According to one of the students who heard him (also quoted in the Chicago Tribune), “His life and career makes you realize, if you’re dedicated, you can do anything.”
The American Bench: Judges of the Nation, edited by Mary Reincke and Nancy Lichterman, Reginald Bishop Forster & Associates, 1979.
Chicago Tribune, Feb 28, 1986, sec. 1, p. 14; Nov 27, 1986, sec. 2, p. 18; Mar 21, 1990, sec. 2, p. 1; Mar 22, 1990, sec. 2, p. 7; Oct 14, 1990, sec. 3, p. 11; Oct. 25, 1990, sec. 1, p. 26; Nov 4. 1990, sec. 4, p. 4; Dec 4, 1990, sec. 2, p. 2; June 12, 1991, sec. 2, p. 3; Feb 17, 1997, sec. 5, p. 1; May 13, 1997, sec. 1, p. 1; May 14, 1997, sec. 2, p. 9; Feb 11, 1998, sec. 2, p. 8.
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