Was it fair to pass over this African American lawyer for a Cook County Circuit Court seat?

Pamela Reaves-Harris is hopping mad.

Last month Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke appointed a white woman to replace a retiring black Cook County Circuit Court judge in the 7th Subcircuit. It’s majority-minority district.

Reaves-Harris and several other African American lawyers applied for the position. Burke instead chose Cara Smith, a Forest Park resident who served as chief policy adviser to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

That incensed some West Side politicians, community leaders and ministers, who held a press conference to demand that Burke rescind the pick.

“That basically says that there are no qualified African Americans on the West Side of Chicago that are able to take that seat, and I find that highly offensive,” Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus, told ABC7-Chicago.

No one more than Reaves-Harris.

“I am very offended by the disparaging statements that Justice Burke put out,” she told me recently.

Illinois lawmakers created the subcircuit system to encourage diversity on the court. The 7thsubcircuit includes a wide swath of the West Side and some western suburbs, including River Forest and Proviso.

When vacancies occur, justices on the state’s high court appoint replacements to serve until the next election.

In a highly unusual move, Burke issued a statement:

“On Oct, 29, 2018, Ald. Jason Ervin came to my office and asked me to appoint Pamela Reaves-Harris to an upcoming 7th Subcircuit vacancy,” she wrote. “I let Ald. Ervin know that Ms. Reaves-Harris was welcome to apply and that she would need to be reviewed by my Judicial Selection Committee.”

An evaluation by the Chicago Bar Association determined that Reaves-Harris was “not recommended” for the post, Burke wrote, “and stated, in part, that while Ms. Harris was ‘a dedicated, busy and hardworking public servant,’ her ‘limited practice and court experience would make it difficult for her to effectively serve as a Circuit Court Judge.’ ”

However, Burke continued, “Cara LeFevour Smith was found ‘Qualified’ by the Chicago Bar Association and ‘Highly Qualified’ by my Judicial Screening Committee.”

Reaves-Harris strenuously begs to differ.

“To say that I am not qualified without interviewing me, without talking to me, it’s ridiculous,” she said.

Her professional and personal experiences matter, especially in her community, she said.

Reaves-Harris, 60, grew up on the West Side and lives in the home of her father and grandmother. It’s “been in the community for over 80 years. And so that community is important to me.”

As a young mother of two, she put herself through law school. She was tapped an assistant vice president at Citibank at age 34. A cancer survivor, she manages a private law practice and routinely takes pro bono clients.

The Chicago Bar Association’s rating devalued her 20-plus years as an administrative law judge, she said. And, she adds, she has been rated either “qualified” or “recommended” by many other local bar associations.

Reaves-Harris especially resents the implication that she was trying to clout her way onto the bench. Yes, she is a former state representative, and Ervin is a political ally and friend. But, she said, “I didn’t even know he had gone to speak to Anne Burke.”

And, she said, she didn’t ask him to.

Reaves-Harris plans to challenge Smith in the March 2020 Democratic primary, “going door to door, church to church.”

“No one will ever convince me that I am not qualified for that seat, and that I can’t do that job. And I’d be good at it,” she declared. “And more importantly, I’d be fair.”

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