Justice Charles E. Freeman, the first African American to serve on and as Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, passed away on March 2 at the age of 86.
Justice Freeman devoted his career to making the state judicial system accountable and accessible to its citizens. Before attending law school, he served as a Courts and Boards Reporter in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. In 1962, Justice Freeman earned his law degree from John Marshall and was admitted to practice in Illinois. He opened a law office in Chicago, where he specialized in divorce and real estate matters. In addition to his private practice, Justice Freeman held a wide variety of government positions, serving as Assistant Attorney General, a Cook County prosecutor, and attorney for the Board of Election Commissioners.
In 1965, Governor Otto Kerner appointed Justice Freeman as Arbitrator of the Illinois Industrial Commission. In this position, he heard and wrote decisions on more than 2,000 work-related injury cases. Eight years later, Governor Dan Walker appointed Justice Freeman to the Illinois Commerce Commission, where he regulated the public utilities of the state’s pipelines and trucking industry. In 1976, Justice Freeman was elected to the Circuit Court of Cook County.
In 1983, Justice Freeman became the first African American to swear in a Chicago mayor, which was particularly historic as he swore in Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor and Justice Freeman’s former law partner. In 1990, after serving on the Illinois Appellate Court and the Circuit Court of Cook County, Justice Freeman was the first African American elected to the Illinois Supreme Court, and in 1997, he was the first African-American to become Chief Justice. He retired from the state’s highest court in 2018.
While serving as Chief Justice, Justice Freeman was credited with spearheading an effort to improve the continuing education of all judges in Illinois. He also was instrumental in forming the Illinois Supreme Court’s Special Committee on Capital Cases, which formulated proposals to assure the fair and just administration of death penalty cases in Illinois.
Justice Freeman was a member of the Cook County, Illinois State, Chicago, and DuPage County Bar Associations; the Illinois Judicial Council; the Illinois and American Judges Associations; the American Judicature Society; Third Ward Democratic Headquarters; and Ralph H. Metcalfe Youth Fund. He served on the Board of Directors for the Garfield Park Community Growth Center and the Conference to Fulfill These Rights.
During his lifetime, Justice Freeman earned dozens of prestigious awards for his professional and volunteer work. These included the Kenneth E. Wilson Award, Certificate of Merit, Ida B. Platt Award, Presidential Award, and Judicial Award from the Cook County Bar Association; the Earl B. Dickerson Award from the Chicago Bar Association; the Cornelius Francis Stradford Award from the State’s Attorney of Cook County; the Kenneth E. Wilson Memorial Award and Meritorious Service Award from Illinois Judicial Council; and the Certificate of Recognition from the Task Force on Opportunities for Minorities in the Judicial Administration; and the Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession from the American Bar Association.
Freeman was born in 1933 in Richmond, Virginia. He received a BA in liberal arts from Virginia Union University.