Oswego native to become state’s second female chief justice
By JOHN O’CONNOR Associated Press September 13, 2013 7:36PM
Illinois Supreme Court justice Rita R. Garman questions an attorney during oral arguments at the Michael A. Bilandic Building Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, in Chicago. To allow for renovations in their permanent Springfield building, Illinois Supreme Court justices settled into Chicago on Tuesday to begin hearing several weeks of oral arguments, the first time the state's highest judicial authority is sitting for a full term outside the capital in nearly 120 years. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Updated: October 17, 2013 6:12AM
A native Oswegoan will rise to the top seat in the state judiciary, and she will be only the second woman to do so in Illinois’ history.
Justice Rita Garman, who has served longer on the bench in Illinois than all but one sitting judge, was named recently as the next chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.
The appointment makes Garman the second woman ever to hold the post, and the second woman to ever head one of the three branches of Illinois state government.
Garman was raised in Oswego and graduated as class valedictorian of Oswego High School before going on to study in the University of Illinois’ Commerce and Law program. She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and was named to the Bronze Tablet, U of I’s highest honor for undergraduates, then earned her law degree from the University of Iowa.
The 69-year-old Republican now lives in Danville. She said male professors admonished her for attending law school only to find a husband. She began her career as a $90-a-week attorney for the Vermilion County Legal Aid Society, and now will replace Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat whose term ends Oct. 25.
A judge since 1974, Garman was unanimously elected by her colleagues on the seven-member court. She will become the first of the state’s top jurists to serve in virtually every judicial capacity on circuit, appellate and Supreme courts.
In a news release, Garman said she will continue Kilbride’s technology initiatives to keep the public better informed and said, “I will place particular emphasis on judicial education because the public is best served by judges whose knowledge is current and wide-ranging.
“And I will do all that I can to encourage civility and ethical conduct among the members of the bench and bar because we all serve the public best when we put our egos aside.”
Kilbride was known for pushing technological advances in the court system, including a pilot project allowing cameras in Illinois trial courtrooms.
Garman, whose nearly four-decade judicial tenure is eclipsed only by the 48 years served by Madison County Circuit Judge Andreas Matoesian, has focused on the needs of children by urging the creation of the Special Committee on Child Custody Issues to ensure that custody cases first consider the well-being of children involved.
The court, on which Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-3, elects chief justices for three-year terms and typically chooses the next senior justice who has not previously served in the top spot, regardless of politics.
Bill Black, a Danville Republican who formerly served in the GOP leadership in the Illinois House, said Garman is known for her “quiet, studious” manner, absence of ego and great sense of humor.
“She’s not a headline-grabber,” Black said. “She’s a very, very thoughtful person.”
When Garman was appointed in 2001 to fill a vacancy, she joined Chief Justice Mary Ann McMorrow, the high court’s first female chief, who died in February at age 83. Garman was elected to a 10-year term in 2002 and was retained in 2012.
Garman said she grew up in Oswego knowing she wanted to be a lawyer and was encouraged by her late parents. But as one of five women in a class of 100, she was sometimes chided by University of Iowa College of Law professors who thought she was taking up space that should go to a man.
“I was told, ‘You know you’ll never practice law. You’re just here to catch a husband,’” Garman recalled.
She said being picked as chief justice is a true honor.
“I am honored and humbled to have been chosen by my colleagues to serve as Chief Justice,” Garman said in the press release. “This office has been held by many great jurists, several of whom I have served with and count among my friends. I welcome the challenges and the responsibility that go with the role of Chief Justice because I know that I can count on the support of my colleagues at all levels of the judiciary and the members of the Illinois bar.”