Former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Moses W. Harrison II died April 26.
Harrison, the father of Madison County Associate Judge Clarence Harrison and an early and outspoken critic of the state’s death penalty, died at Missouri Baptist Hospital in St. Louis after a long illness, according to statements issued by the Supreme Court and Madison County chief judge’s office.
Harrison, 81, held the Fifth District seat on the state Supreme Court from 1992 to 2002, the last two years of which he served as the chief justice.
Chief Justice Tom Kilbride in a statement described Harrison as a former colleague, friend and mentor who will not only be remembered as a prominent judge and a great man, but as someone who “never lost sight of the common man.”
“His commitment to equality and fairness went well beyond his simple, succinct, yet superlative opinions,” Kilbride said. “He treated all people in all stations in life with the same kindness, dignity and respect.”
Kilbride added, “That fundamental decency guided his work as a judge, and his work guided Illinois law. Illinois is a sadder place today because of his death, but it will forever be a better place because of his life.”
In a 2002 Supreme Court news release announcing his retirement, Harrison said his small-town upbringing in Collinsville instilled within him a philosophy that “the reason for our existence is to help other people.”
“I also learned that the way you should judge people is how they treat the other people around on a day-to-day basis,” Harrison said in 2002, when he stepped down from the bench for “personal reasons.”
Harrison, according to the court’s release, began his legal career in private practice in East St. Louis and Collinsville after earning his law degree from Washington University’s School of Law in St. Louis in 1958.
He was appointed a circuit judge in the Third Judicial Circuit Court in 1973 and five years later, was appointed to the Fifth District Appellate Court. In 1992, he was elected to the Supreme Court.
In the 2002 release, the Supreme Court noted that Harrison earned a reputation “for demonstrating a commitment to justice and human welfare, writing either in the majority or dissent, to defend the poor, the weak, the young and the elderly against corporate or governmental policies which went against their interests.”
One of the more well-known dissents Harrison delivered came in November 1998, when he wrote that the state’s death penalty was unconstitutional because “the execution of an innocent person is inevitable.”
About three months later, according to the court’s 2002 release, Death Row inmate Anthony Porter was exonerated and released after someone else admitted to the murders that put him behind bars.
“There are some who say Chief Justice Harrison was the first to call for a stop to executions in Illinois,” the court’s 2002 release states.
Not even a year after Harrison issued a public statement in 1999 that said the governor had the constitutional power to stop executions, the release notes that former Gov. Ryan issued a moratorium on the state’s death penalty.
In April 2000, Harrison discussed the Illinois death penalty on “60 Minutes” with Mike Wallace, according to the release the Madison County chief judge's office. He also appeared in the movie, “Too Flawed to Fix: The Illinois Death Penalty Experience.”
“When asked how he saw his role,” the release states that “he said, ‘It is to protect ordinary citizens against wrongdoing by the government, large corporations and powerful individuals.’”