Justice Reyes | From the Neighborhood
Justice Reyes | From the Neighborhood
From the factories to the bench – The story of Justice Jesse Reyes
Includes excerpts from the feature story “In His Favor” by Kevin McKeough
Inspired by Abe Lincoln
Reyes’ accomplishments are all the more noteworthy given that his origins were as unassuming as his manner of jurisprudence is today. Raised and schooled in Chicago’s Pilsen and Bridgeport neighborhoods, he was the oldest of four children and the only one to attend college. His stepfather worked as a foreman for a plate glass company, while his mother kept the family home where she still lives today.
Growing up, Jesse Reyes loved following the city’s professional sports teams a passion he passed to his daughter.
In addition to his enthusiasm for athletics, which Reyes maintains to this day, he had a voracious love for reading. With no public library near his Pilsen home, he would wait for the weekly arrival of a mobile book unit, and then check out as many volumes as he was allowed.
Reyes particularly loved reading histories and found inspiration in the lives of presidents, such as Theodore Roosevelt overcoming childhood physical ailments to become renowned for his vigor or Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to educate himself.
For as long as he can remember, Reyes knew he wanted to be a lawyer, and these stories encouraged him to believe in his dream.
To achieve that dream, he had to resist the pressure to join the street gangs that were sprouting up in the Pilsen neighborhood where he lived as a child. Not surprisingly, he didn’t go out much after school, which reinforced his dedication to books.
His family moved to Bridgeport in 1967, and Reyes subsequently attended Thomas Kelly High School in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, then an enclave of Eastern European immigrant families. Reyes throughout the years continues to return to the school to participate in its annual career night, and his alma mater has named him to its hall of fame.
A bookstore down the street from the high school fed his literary passion with paperback copies of The Catcher in the Rye, All Quiet on the Western Front, Catch-22 and more. During the same time, he played all manner of sports: halfback for the Kelly High football team (which went to the city playoffs in his junior year); touch football games in the snow in nearby McKinley Park; and tennis, volleyball and wrestling in the park’s programs. (In adulthood, Reyes has completed a number of marathons and triathlons.
Serving on the student senate
For all his intellect, ambition and drive, pursuing his dreams proved elusive at first. After graduating from Kelly, he took community college classes while working in factories to help support his family.
His wife Terry, whom he married in 1974, encouraged him to keep going. Eventually, UIC provided Reyes with the opportunity he needed, giving him the flexibility to pursue his bachelor’s degree while he worked in a place more suited to his ambitions: the library of a law firm. In between his job and classes, he found time to serve on the executive committee of the Circle Center Board (which oversaw funding for student organizations) and as vice president of the student senate.
Obtaining justice and judgeship
After graduating from UIC, Reyes received his JD in 1982 from John Marshall Law School in Chicago, and then practiced as a plaintiff’s attorney for Kenneth B. Gore Limited,(KGB) a Chicago firm specializing in personal injury and workman’s compensation cases.
After leaving KBG, he joined the City of Chicago’s Corporation Counsel Office, where he represented the city in complex civil litigation, and then the law department of the Chicago Board of Education, where he vetted reform procedures and policies.
In 1997, Reyes was elected an associate judge by his peers on the circuit court. (Circuit court judges are elected by public vote; they in turn select associate judges from a pool of candidates who have been evaluated by the chief judge’s screening committee and local bar associations.) Like all new associate judges, he started out hearing traffic cases, and later presided over misdemeanor matters and domestic violence cases. Reyes was then assigned to the Circuit Chancery Division, where he is responsible for hearing cases involving foreclosures and liens attached to a property by a contractor or supplier.
Sharing his love of books and learning
By all accounts, Reyes has brought the same qualities he demonstrates on the bench to his leadership of the Illinois Judges Association. (He has also served as president of the Latin American Bar Association, regional president of the Hispanic National Bar Association and secretary of the Chicago Bar Association—where he was the first Hispanic elected to an officer position.) He first joined IJA’s executive ranks as its treasurer, the first in a series of positions that traditionally lead to the presidency.
As president, Reyes has expanded IJA’s program to provide speakers to community groups and schools, and he hosted a series of cable television shows that discussed courtroom related topics, taping several of the broadcasts in Spanish.
He’s also tried to instill his love of books and learning in children with backgrounds similar to his own, when initiated an annual book drive which in 2007 provided more than 6,000 books to needy Chicago schoolchildren.
The undertaking reflects Reyes’ belief in reading and learning as pathways to success, and he’s determined to give others the same chance to succeed that he had. “I remember what it was like growing up and not having a helping hand, not having role models of your own ethnicity and background.”
Reyes was elected to the First District Appellate Court on Nov. 6, 2012, becoming the first Latino elected to the Illinois Appellate Court. Reyes strives to make history again as he embarks on his campaign to become a member of the Illinois Supreme Court. From humble beginnings to serving on the bench, Reyes continues to reach higher to ensure justice for all.
Jesse Reyes and his wife Terry live in Chicago’s southside, in the southwest side of the city of Chicago. Their daughter Renee is currently a teacher.