Black leaders expressed disappointment Thursday that only one of three vacancies on the 20th judicial circuit bench might be filled by an African-American candidate.
State court officials announced Wednesday that St. Clair County prosecutor Joseph D. Christ and Belleville attorney Christopher T. Kolker were named to fill two vacancies, but that no candidate received a majority of the votes to fill the third spot.
Three black candidates are among the 29 who applied for the three positions: Ethan D. Skaggs, Levander Smith and William Clay IV.
Black leaders had hoped that two of the positions could be filled by African-Americans, but they say the remaining position should go to a qualified black applicant to more accurately reflect the diversity in the county, which is 30.5 percent black, according to Stanley Franklin, the newly appointed president of the East St. Louis chapter of the NAACP.
"We are very disappointed that the three seats did not go to the three qualified African-Americans have applied for the three vacancies, but we are hopeful that the remaining seat will go to one of the black candidates," Franklin said after Thursday's announcement.
The seat held by Judge Zina Cruse, who is black and was elected in November to be a full circuit judge, was once held by black jurist Billy Jones in the 1970s. After him came judges Eddie McCaskill, Alexis Otis-Lewis and Cruse, all of whom are African-American.
Since no one received a majority of the votes for the third spot, a runoff vote will be held among the remaining 26 candidates.
Matt Hawkins, president of Civic Alliance of East St. Louis, said diversity certainly has its place, but he doesn't think diversity simply relates to race.
"There is diversity of opinion, of training, of expertise. We have to look at this when we make that decision," he said.
"I would love to see more public discussions about these appointments as opposed to these hush-hush discussions and back-door deals. I feel like I am an engaged active member of our community, yet I don't even know these things are happening. No one has extended an invitation. I think these are great opportunities for elected leaders and citizens to work together to make sure we get it right," Hawkins said.
East St. Louis Mayor Alvin L. Parks said, "The seat Zina Cruse was in, I realize has history, but I am not as concerned about the history of one seat as I am of making sure the diversity doesn't leave. I would love to see one of the three seats go to an African-American."
John Baricevic, chief of the St. Clair County judicial bench, said more needs to be done in terms of diversity, but he also said the courthouse has come a long way in terms of diversity.
Asked whether he felt the associate judge seat vacated by Cruse should go to a black candidate, Baricevic said while diversity is important, more important is that the person who fills any of the vacancies must be qualified.
Carl Officer, a former East St. Louis mayor, agreed with Baricevic that qualifications is key.
"I would think the sitting judges there would have far better knowledge than I would. I would think they would have more credence in their recommendation along with polling from the local attorneys that practice in the 20th circuit court," said Officer, who is a member of the District 189 school board.
Officer said the black Democratic Party members in St. Clair County have consistently delivered the votes for all of the judges who are presently sitting and he feels African-Americans "deserve to have at least one seat there based on representation.
"Whoever is elected needs to be qualified and competent. The judges should not base their selection on political favors, but on the law," Officer said.
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.