This is the second of three profiles on Black candidates running for the Illinois Supreme Court
By Erick Johnson
Justice Nathaniel Roosevelt Howse, Jr. is a familiar name in Chicago’s legal circles.
His father was prominent attorney Nathaniel R. Howse, Sr., a former janitor who fled to Chicago to carve out a future for himself and his family.
Justice Nathaniel Howse, Jr. is carving out a future of his own. He is one of three prominent Blacks among seven candidates who are seeking a position on the Illinois Supreme Court on March 17.
It’s a tough race. Many of the candidates are seasoned legal veterans of Illinois’ court system.
Howse has 43 years of legal experience, having practiced law for 22 years, then serving as a Cook County judge, and currently serving as a judge on the Illinois Appellate Court.
It’s been a long journey for Howse, who for decades shared a strong work ethic with a father who blazed a trail for his children’s future.
For Howse, an election to the state’s highest court would be the crowning achievement to a successful legal career that has reflected his devotion to infusing justice with empathy on the bench.
Howse recently visited the Crusader office for a one-hour interview to talk about his life, his legal career, and his campaign for a seat on Illinois’ nine-member Supreme Court.
“I’ve been out there fighting for the people,” Howse said.
He was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a small town 34 miles southeast of Nashville.
His parents graduated from the HBCU, Tennessee State University. His mother, Helen Howse Dixon, obtained a teaching degree. Howse’s father obtained a master’s degree. Howse said despite their degrees, his parents failed to get jobs that reflected their college education. Howse’s father was forced to take a job as a janitor.
In 1959, Howse’s father moved his family to Chicago. Howse’s mother began a 35-year career teaching in the Chicago Public School system. Howse’s father worked for the city as a assistant supervisor at the Land Clearance Commission. He eventually decided to become an attorney and enrolled at John Marshall Law School, where he attended classes at night while holding a fulltime job with the city.
“We were able to see him do this. He would get up early in the morning to go to work and get home late, after attending classes,” Howse said. “I understood and learned by example what hard work could do for you and how it could improve your life. I also learned what dedication was. But I never forgot what it felt like to be treated as “less than.”
It was a learning experience that Howse says stuck with him for the rest of his life. After obtaining a law degree from Loyola, Howse was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1976.
“When I became a lawyer, I remember the sensitivity,” Howse said.
With Justice R. Eugene Pincham as mentor, Howse worked for free as the lead attorney of the Harold Washington Party. The party was founded in the late 1980s by frustrated, disenfranchised Blacks who felt shut out by the Cook County Democratic Party.
In 1998, Howse was elected as a Cook County Circuit Court Judge.
In 2008, Howse presided over a case where activists opposed a question on an election ballot, asking if they wanted to hold a constitutional conventional to propose amendments to the Illinois Constitution.
Activists particularly objected to a paragraph that included the results of a failed 1988 constitutional convention vote and a separate sentence declaring that not voting on the question is the equivalent of a “no” vote.
Cook County Circuit Justice Nathaniel Howse Jr. in his ruling said, “I believe the language is not accurate [and] interferes with the rights of voters.”
As a remedy, Howse ordered lawyers to develop a new version of the ballot summary with an official Illinois government seal to be distributed at polling places on election day. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal after being informed of the confusing language.
The case gained the attention of the Illinois Supreme Court, who called Howse the next year, asking him if he wanted to be evaluated for a position on the First District Illinois Appellate Court. In 2009, Howse was given the job, where he gained a reputation as a judge who was well versed in his knowledge of the law.
Last month, Bishop Larry Trotter, Dr. Byron Brazier and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White led a group of Black Cook County ministers to voice their support of Howse’s campaign for the Illinois Supreme Court.
Throughout his career, Howse said he was sensitive to poor defendants and often explained his rulings with more compassion. They include Blacks whose driver’s licenses are suspended because they are unable to pay fines.
“That’s the reason I feel that I’m a good candidate [for the Illinois Supreme Court]. I know what it feels like. I have that sensitivity.”