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Column: Rene Cruz of Aurora eyes spot on Illinois Supreme Court – Chicago Tribune

If you’re like most folks stepping into the voting booth, knowledge about candidates running for judge falls somewhere between don’t have a clue and don’t really care.

Which could be good news for Rene Cruz, the 16th Judicial Court judge whose name will appear first on the Democratic primary ballot under the race for Illinois Supreme Court justice representing the 2nd District consisting of Kane, Kendall, DeKalb, Lake and McHenry counties.

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That’s because studies show that in low-profile races, the name at the top can mean up to a 10% boost in votes.

Still, when Cruz sat down to talk recently in his Aurora campaign headquarters, which was inside the law offices he shared with partner Ed Gil for 17 years before donning the black robe a decade ago to become the first Hispanic judge in the 16th Circuit Court, he made one thing perfectly clear.

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This Aurora candidate would much rather voters look at his credentials than the fact he won the roll of the lottery dice when it came to where he fell on the ballot. For that matter, he’d prefer you take a look at what he’s accomplished more than the fact that, if elected in the general election, he’d make history yet again as the first Hispanic Illinois Supreme Court justice.

When it comes to what matters most, Cruz points to his experience giving him the upper hand over his opponents Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering and Lake County Associate Judge Elizabeth Rochford, who, unlike Cruz, have a long history of involvement in the political process.

A glance at his campaign material clearly lays out impressive credentials.

Cruz, who was born in Panama when his Puerto Rican father was serving his second tour of duty in Vietnam, was appointed an associate judge in 2012, then two years later was elevated by the state’s Supreme Court to take over the Family Court Division after Judith Brawka retired.

A few years after that, Cruz, who graduated with honors from The Citadel before doing the same from Northern Illinois University’s College of Law, was elected to that position and became its presiding judge. Currently he is presiding judge of the Criminal Misdemeanor and Traffic Division. It’s a six-year-term that ends in 2024, but because judges need only win retention approval by voters in order to hang on to their jobs, Cruz would have been on campaign-autopilot had he not thrown his hat into the Supreme Court ring.

After being approached by several “high-level” individuals, Cruz told me he made that decision because the Supreme Court “involves both legal and administrative” duties, which “puts it more in my wheelhouse” than the Appellate Court that “strictly reviews cases.”

It’s here that the judge and I got into more of his unique accomplishments in the 16th Circuit Court, and why, no matter where his name appears on the Democratic Primary ballot, he deserves your vote.

As a presiding judge in the 16th Judicial Circuit, Cruz not only gets to oversee five courts but also decide the direction of his division, which includes rewriting rules. And that became a very big deal when, on March 15 of 2020, the state went into a lockdown and, just like that, the old rules no longer were adequate.

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“The pandemic really lit the fire under me,” said Cruz. “It forced us to find solutions, not so much to think outside the box but to reinvent it.”

That was especially critical in family law, where he was working at the time. Because those cases involved “a very high volume of complicated and emotional court calls … that greatly impacted everyday life, including parenting, economics and children,” Cruz immediately began rewriting the local rules that, he told me, made it possible within a week to hold family court calls on Zoom.

It meant long nights, it meant convincing other judges to buy into this plan and it meant dealing with those unexpected glitches that popped up because “no one was prepared” for what a pandemic could do to our systems.

But “what started as a Band-Aid,” Cruz said, evolved into a new way of thinking about how things could be done, not just in family courts, but throughout the judiciary. Those changes, he added, were eventually appreciated by judges, lawyers and their clients, especially those who could not afford to take off work for a day every time they had to make an appearance in court.

Cruz, who “was used to spotting deficiencies from running a high-volume law practice,” said after transitioning into criminal court last year he saw other rules that could be rewritten to streamline a system historically reluctant to change.

For example, because the vast majority of cases in his courts – many are DUIs – are settled and only require exchanges of paperwork, “we changed the rules in our division so we only have to see the defendant once.”

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Other processes, including divorce, have benefitted from the new streamlined rules, noted Cruz. As word spread about these changes, judges from other counties, he said, “were calling to see what Kane was doing.”

And the phone continued to ring.

In addition to many leadership roles with professional and community groups – go to his campaign website if you want to read through a long list – Cruz has, most recently, presented these innovations about virtual court proceedings to his peers at a national level.

But Kane County, he added, has changed the narrative in other ways as well, including the fact “we are now seeing much more diversity, not just among judges but other judiciary employees, including bailiffs, courtroom deputies and public defenders.”

Cruz is also proud of how he’s been able to bring higher qualified interpreters into the local courts at half the previous cost. And it’s that ability to “rethink the box” that has Cruz convinced his next role should be on the Illinois Supreme Court, which in addition to appeals where the constitutionality of the law has been called into question, judges have general administrative and supervisory authority over all courts in the state.

His positions on guns and abortion, the two issues his campaign identifies as most important to voters are 1) responsible ownership – he owns a weapon; 2) a person’s right to make decisions over one’s body.

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While Cruz considers himself a dark horse because of his opponents’ long campaign histories and ties to the Democratic Party, he’s hoping to be viewed as a new face where what he’s done is more important than who he knows. And he’s counting on pulling in “the big numbers” from Kane County, and certainly Aurora, where he has long been an active volunteer.

His campaign points out he and wife Silvia recently were awarded the Champions Against Hunger Award by Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry; he’s been recognized by the Kane County Bar Association with its Community Service Award; and Cruz is co-creator of Kane County’s Worries of the World Wide Web program that teaches the dangers of irresponsible internet usage to students, judges and community groups, and now presents the program throughout the state.

Like I mentioned earlier, his list of services and leadership, including those in the Hispanic community, go far beyond the few I mentioned. But whether any or all of that translates to how people, known to show “voter fatigue” by the time they get to the bottom of the ballot, will make their choice for the Supreme Court remains to be seen.

Some may check the Aurora judge because he is listed first; some because it’s a diverse last name – after all, it is a Democratic primary. And some may even put that proverbial “X” next to Rene Cruz because they think, from his first name, that he’s a woman.

“Yes, it happens every day,” he laughed.

“But I want to run as myself …. And just get my message out there.”

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