By Erick Johnson
There are seven justices on the Illinois Supreme Court. Two are white women. For 202 years, there has never been a Black woman serving on the state’s highest court.
That could change this year if voters elect Judge Cynthia Y. Cobbs at the Democratic primary and general election. While she would be the third Black person on the bench, Cobbs would smash an even bigger glass ceiling.
Eighteen years ago, Cobbs was the first woman, Black or white, appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to serve as the Director of the Illinois Courts.
She served as a judicial law clerk to Charles Freeman, the first Black Illinois Supreme Court Justice. Now she’s running for the seat Freeman served in for 27 years before he retired in 2018.
Freeman died on Monday, March 2, at a time when Cobbs and two other Blacks are running to fill his seat. One of them, Justice P. Scott Neville was appointed to serve on the seat after Freeman retired. Now he’s among six candidates seeking to be elected to the position starting with the March 17 primary election.
Throughout her life, Cobbs has risen above her status as a Black woman who has seen people of color succeed in the legal profession. For Black women, the changes have come much more slowly. Historically, a Black woman has been regarded as the bottom of the barrel, with two strikes against her. Today, many are finally rising to the top of their professions after years of fighting for equality.
At a sit-down interview with the Crusader, Cobbs asserted her skills and unique background as a candidate for the Illinois Supreme Court. She presented less focus on her judicial ambitions as a Black woman.
“I happen to be Black and I also happen to be a woman. I didn’t have anything to do with either one of those,” Cobbs said.
“That’s God’s business, I claim it, I own it, I boast in it, I’m proud of it. But I also happen to be qualified, immensely qualified, to work on the Supreme Court. When you’re the first of anything, it’s always gratifying, but there are little people who are coming right behind me and who are watching to see what’s possible.”
In high school in Maryland, Cobbs said she was told by her guidance counselor that she didn’t write very well and she was put in a lower class. Cobbs said her mother learned that the counselor never looked at any of her daughter’s work before making the evaluation. It was actually someone else’s writing.
“I tell you that story because the effect it had on a little Black girl was that you’re not good enough. You can’t do it. And so, every time I climb another ladder I have to convince myself that No. 1, I climbed it and No. 2, I’m good enough to climb it. “
Cobbs is a graduate of Morgan State University, an HBCU. After obtaining a Master’s degree in Social Work (clinical) Cobbs earned her J.D. degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law.
In 1990, Cobbs began serving as senior judicial law clerk under Justice Freeman during his first year as Supreme Court Justice.
Cobbs says she wrote at least 30 draft opinions that were submitted to Freeman for review. Cobbs said the appeal cases involved civil, criminal, juvenile and administrative law, and required knowledge of both Illinois procedural and substantive law. Cobbs served in the role for seven years.
Between 1997 and 2002, Cobbs served as staff attorney and chief legal counsel for the Supreme Court. From 2002 to 2011, Cobbs served as Director of the Illinois Courts, where she managed the state’s $300 million annual court system budget. She also provided administrative support managing every aspect of the Illinois Supreme Court, Appellate Courts and Circuit Court.
From 2011 to 2014, she served as Circuit Court Judge in Cook County where she presided over traffic cases and cases that involved major and minor offenses. That year, Cobbs was appointed to serve as judge on the Illinois First District Appellate court, the position she currently holds.
Cobbs believes her extensive administrative work as a law clerk, Director of Illinois Courts and judge, make her the most qualified candidate to serve as justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.
“The [Illinois] Supreme Court does two things, essentially. They dispose of cases that they have to accept on appeal.
The other work of the Supreme Court is to run the entire court system in the state of Illinois.
No other candidate will bring both of these aspects to the Supreme Court.”