Serving the Interests of Justice: Judge James Rhodes

James Rhodes is an alumni who has quietly worked in the Illinois judicial system for several decades. He is a humble man who avoids spotlights, shying away from having attention focused on him, but his dedication to equality and justice has impacted the Illinois judicial system and the lives of countless people who have entered his courtroom. A native of Chicago, Rhodes earned an undergraduate degree from Knox in political science before earning a juris doctorate degree from the University of Michigan and a post-graduate Master of Advanced Study (MAS) professional degree from the University of Illinois-Chicago.


Fighting for Equal Justice

Rhodes served as an Assistant Cook County Public Defender beginning in 1975. He worked on appeals, the homicide task force, and the Multiple Defendant Division. For many years he represented indigent people who were accused of first degree murder. Some of his clients faced the possibility of the death penalty and lacked resources to fund their defenses.


Obtaining equity and justice can be difficult for poor people, but Rhodes used his experience and skill as a Public Defender to secure investigators and to present compelling defenses for his clients. He worked with clients from the beginning of their cases through to the final stages. Often, he was the attorney from indictment to sentencing or acquittal. These cases and his work in the Public Defender’s Office left an indelible impression upon Rhodes. He developed a two-word mantra to describe his role in the judicial system: equal justice. Years later, this mantra has guided his work as a Cook County judge.


“As a judge who sits on the bench and presides over cases,” Rhodes explained his commitment to equality. “It’s important for me to ensure justice is equally served. That’s why I have this job and pursued this field. The people who need legal assistance and who come before my bench are entitled to that, and my role is to ensure people are treated with fairness, equality and justice when appearing in my court. ”


Rhodes’ commitment to equity and fairness has pitted him against the very system he works to uphold. Shortly after being elected and assigned to the Markham, Illinois courthouse, Rhodes battled State Prosecutors to ensure fair and equal justice for defendants in his courts. In 2000 prosecutors filed several substitution of judge motions on felony criminal cases that had been assigned to Rhodes. Persecutors held that when Rhodes presided in juvenile court he handed out too many probation sentences, which prosecutors believed to be an indication that he would be an unfair judge for the felony cases on the dockets for his court. 


The State Supreme Court ruled in Judge Rhodes’ favor and put the felony cases back on Rhodes dockets. A 2008 review of his cases further supported the State Supreme Court decision.


Serving His Community

Alumnae Presita (May) West, class of 1997, is an Assistant Public Defender in Cook County. She first met Rhodes while a student at Knox. “I went out with Judge Rhodes during his first foray as a judicial candidate. I went with him to El stops passing out literature as he made his bid for a judicial seat,” Ms. May describes her first meetings with Judge Rhodes. “He also invited me to his employment when he was a Supervisor in the Cook County Public Defender's office. I appreciate the time he invested in me and career, and I also value his willingness to show me what the job of an attorney looked like. He was an example for me that motivated and inspired me to go to law school and become an attorney.”


Judge Rhodes has a commitment to service that extends beyond his work in the courtroom. He and his wife, Cynthia are members of the New Faith Baptist Church, where Rhodes serves in the International Justice Ministry. Rhodes was re-elected for judicial service in 2013 for a term that ends in 2020. He is a member of the Cook County Bar Association, Illinois Judicial Council, and the Illinois Judges Association.