While the imposing 10-story, $215 million courthouse under construction in downtown Joliet may be the most outwardly impressive sign of change, the more subtle transformations for the Will County Circuit Court have been quietly underway for the past several years. As many longtime judges have retired, the court has welcomed—by election and appointment—a number of younger replacements who are set to lead the judiciary into not only that new building (set to open in 2020), but a new future as well. One of the fresh faces leading that charge is 54-year-old Naperville resident Vincent Cornelius, who was elected in November after nearly 30 years as a practicing attorney.
From the moment a 9-year-old Cornelius first envisioned a law career for himself, it’s been quite a journey to the bench.
“I decided I wanted to be a courtroom lawyer while watching an episode of Perry Mason,” he recalls. “I wish that was all a bit less clichéd, but in my defense, Perry Mason really was the Law and Order of its time.”
Cornelius parlayed a penchant for hard work and a steadfast belief in the power of the legal profession into a thriving practice in Wheaton and a historic post as the 140th president of the Illinois State Bar Association in 2016—he was the first African American to hold that prestigious position.
“It was an incredible honor to serve, as it afforded me the opportunity to be the voice of Illinois lawyers on a state and national level,” Cornelius says of his term with the ISBA. “But what I’m most proud of in my career are the courtroom presentations we’ve provided for our clients, trying and winning significant cases in several jurisdictions.”
Eighteenth Judicial Circuit Court Chief Judge Daniel Guerin, who has known Cornelius personally and professionally since their days together as young prosecutors in traffic court, believes the key qualities his colleague has demonstrated throughout the many phases of his career to date will serve him exceptionally well on the bench.
“He’s always been so thoughtful and courteous and intelligent—a true gentleman,” Guerin says. “But it’s really his patience and his ability to listen that will be among his most telling traits.”
Indeed, as he brings his trial experience, leadership, and vision to the Will County bench, Cornelius is excited to be a part of a particularly consequential period in the history of the court. But he also knows that regardless of which side of the bench he’s on, he will continue to be guided by the principles and ideals that first inspired him years ago.
“People turn to the law in times of distress, and often in desperate need of help, and I have always found it extremely gratifying to be able to help them restore their lives, as closely as possible, to normalcy.”
Photograph by Michael Hudson