Tribute to Justice Charles E. Freeman
Justice-Charles-Freeman

On June 14, 2018, Justice Charles E. Freeman, the first African-American on the Supreme Court of Illinois, retired after serving nearly 28 years. The Illinois Judicial Council, founded in 1982 by African-American judges, is proud and honored to have Justice Freeman as a distinguished member and salute him as “one of its own.” With the deepest gratitude for and in consideration of Justice Freeman’s dedicated public service, unwavering support and generosity, the Illinois Judicial Council began its 2018- 2019 fiscal year with this Special Tribute.

Justice Freeman was born in Richmond, Virginia, bearing a surname possibly adopted when Quakers freed his father’s family before the Civil War. * Justice Freeman received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Virginia Union University, in 1954, and his Juris Doctor degree from John Marshall Law School, in Chicago, Illinois, in 1962. During his early legal career, Justice Freeman served as an Illinois Assistant Attorney General; a Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney; and an attorney for the Illinois State Board of Elections.

In 1965, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. appointed Justice Freeman as an arbitrator at the Illinois Industrial Commission. While serving as an arbitrator, Justice Freeman issued decisions in more than 2,000 work-related injury cases. In 1973, Illinois Governor Daniel J. Walker appointed Justice Freeman to the Illinois Commerce Commission, where he protected the public by overseeing utility companies to ensure proper conduct and safe practices. In 1976, citizens elected Justice Freeman to serve as a judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County. In 1982, Justice Freeman swore in the Honorable Harold L. Washington, his personal friend, as the first African-American mayor of Chicago. In 1986, citizens elected Justice Freeman to serve as a Justice of the Illinois Appellate Court, First District. In 1987, Justice Freeman swore in Mayor Washington for a second mayoral term. The time period remains a high point in the historical advancement of African-Americans in Chicago.

On November 6, 1990, citizens elected Justice Freeman to serve as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois. From 1997 until 2000, Justice Freeman served as Chief Justice of the Court upon election by his colleagues. In 2002, with his re-election by citizens to the Court, Justice Freeman became its most senior member. In 2010, citizens, representing 78.31% of the vote, retained him on the Court for another ten year term of office. Justice Freeman retired prior to expiration of that term.

As a member of the Supreme Court, Justice Freeman dutifully served Illinois citizens, producing an extraordinary body of legal decisions, consisting of 386 majority opinions, 96 written special concurrences, and 106 written dissents. Justice Freeman is well-known and praised for upholding defendants’ rights and advocating for prosecutorial reforms. Some of his notable decisions include but, are by no means limited to, Lee v. Chicago Transit Authority, 152 Ill. 2d 432 (1992), (defining the duty owed by a landowner to an adult trespasser for artificial conditions on the land; see also IPI Pattern Jury Instructions 120.03); and People v. Rolando Cruz, 162 Ill. 2d 314 (1994) (finding that “[w]e are duty bound to play a larger role in preserving that very basic guarantee of our democratic society, that every person, however, culpable, is entitled to a fair and impartial trial. We cannot deviate from the obligation of that rule”). Justice Freeman’s legal decisions manifestly serve as part of his enduring legacy and reflect his deep and abiding commitment to fairness and justice.

Justice Freeman additionally strove to make Illinois’ judicial system accountable and accessible to all of its citizens and residents. During his tenure as Chief Justice, Freeman oversaw improved efficiency of the Family Violence Prevention program; the establishment of a judicial webpage; and the reorganization of the rotation of assignments of appellate judges in the First Judicial District. In 1996, prior to serving as Chief Justice, Justice Freeman outlined the court’s responsibilities and capabilities in an article for the Chicago Defender, Chicago’s oldest original African-American newspaper. Illinois residents are grateful for his scholarly, judicial decisions, and administrative contributions to our legal system.

Significantly, Justice Freeman also contributed to Illinois’ legal system by advancing racial diversity within it. As the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court of Illinois, Judge Freeman’s presence there not only has historical significance, in general, for the African-American community-at-large, but it has had a profound impact on the African-American legal community. As stated by Chief Justice Karmeier, “as the first African-American to sit on the high court,” Justice Freeman “inspired generations of attorneys of color to pursue careers in public service and positions of leadership.”

During his lengthy tenure on the Court, Justice Freeman helped expand the African American judiciary in Illinois, as well as African-American participation within Illinois Supreme Court administrative bodies. Specifically, Justice Freeman nominated more than 36 African-American attorneys for appointment or assignment to the Cook County Circuit Court and the Illinois Appellate Court. Justice Freeman’s first judicial nomination supported appointment of Justice Shelvin Louise Marie Hall as a Cook County Circuit Court Judge. Justice Freeman also directly appointed members of the African-American legal community, too numerous to name at this time, to serve on the Supreme Court’s administrative commissions, committees, and boards. In addition, Justice Freeman helped advance career opportunities for African-American lawyers and even those aspiring to become lawyers. He opened the door for African-American lawyers to serve in Illinois Supreme Court clerkships. In sum, Justice Freeman believed in us.

 

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*The History Makers (the nation’s largest African American Video Oral History, March 28, 2003 interview)

This Salute was part of the Special Tribute to Justice Freeman presented by Justice Cynthia Y. Cobbs and Judge Diana L. Embil at the Illinois Judicial Council’s 36th Annual Installation & Scholarship Awards Banquet (August 30, 2018).