Profiles in success: a conversation with two pioneering women justices from the Fifth District of the Illinois Court of Appeals

"Can girls be judges?" This question was not uttered decades or even centuries ago but within the past several months by the nine-year-old daughter of newly appointed appellate court Justice Melissa Chapman Rheinecker. The answer is "yes" and has been in the Fifth District of the Illinois Appellate Court since 1979 when the Honorable Dorothy Wilbourn Spomer was appointed the first woman appellate justice to serve in that district. Twenty-two years later, in September 2001, Justice Chapman became the second.

In the discussion with her daughter, Justice Chapman learned that her daughter believed that there were some jobs that women just couldn't do. Although "girls can be judges," Justice Chapman was abruptly reminded that perception is reality, and that if young girls believe that their opportunities are limited, they are. "If our society creates the impression of gender restrictions, those restrictions are real," she noted.

Perhaps it was Justice Spomer's and Justice Chapman's refusal to believe that they were limited by their gender that allowed them to be the remarkable women they are. Both women grew up in families with attorney fathers who encouraged them in their professional life and expected them to succeed in a field traditionally dominated by men. Both women exhibit a resolve to make their worth known in the legal profession undaunted by the obstacle of society's gender expectations. Both women achieved their success by hard work, perseverance and a willingness to "do what had to be done" without complaint or self-pity.

The district's first woman judge

Justice Spomer was born and raised in Cairo, Illinois. The daughter of Alexander County attorney and one-time Alexander County Judge Asa J. Wilbourn, she began her forays into the legal workplace as a small child when, on her way home from school, she would stop by her father's law office to play with the typewriter. As early as fourth grade, she knew that she wanted to become a lawyer.

From the fall of 1938 to the summer of 1943, Justice Spomer attended the University of Illinois year-round. She was on a yearly scholarship and wanted to get the most out of her award, so time off from studies was a forbidden luxury. She earned a B.S. from the university's commerce school and a J.D. from the law school.

In law school, Justice Spomer concentrated on her studies. Her extra-curricular activities were limited to her job in the law library and sharing household chores with the six other women she lived with in a pair of apartments. Although there were only four or five other women in her law school class, she didn't feel like very much of a ground-breaker for women's rights. "I just did what was necessary to become a lawyer," she said resolutely, apparently oblivious to the extraordinary role she and her classmates played for women attorneys in the decades to come.

While working in the law library at the University of Illinois, she met Wally Spomer, her future husband, a law student from the University of Nebraska, then in the military service. They had a couple of "Coke" dates, and he was transferred to Queens College to prepare to be a German interpreter. She finished law school and returned to Cairo. On his last leave, Wally Spomer visited Cairo to meet Justice Spomer's parents and asked her to marry him. Justice Spomer waited until the night before she and Wally Spomer were to elope to New Orleans to tell her father, who then asked, "Are you going to be a lawyer or a wife?" She answered, "Both!" They were married in 1944, and Wally Spomer left for World War II shortly thereafter. Justice Spomer remained at home to practice law with her father, determined to be a lawyer and a wife. After he was discharged from the military, Wally Spomer also got his law degree from the University of Illinois and practiced law in Cairo until his retirement.

At age 22, when Justice Spomer joined her father's law firm, she recalls the confidence she had, fresh from law school, that she must know so much more than her father. However, she also recalls with humility the short month it took to change her mind; she soon realized that she would never know as much about practicing law as he did.

An auspicious beginning

Her father gave her unparalleled opportunities. Her first assignment after being admitted to the bar was to argue before the Illinois Supreme Court. She spent countless hours preparing, reading the law until she could just about quote her supporting cases word for word. When she got up to argue, she poured herself a glass of water, shaking so much that she could hardly get the water in the glass. Her father later told her he saw her nervousness and was thinking, "What have I done to her?" She won the argument.

Seven years later, in 1950, Justice Spomer set out to become the County Judge of Alexander County. Unfortunately, her father didn't get to see her elected. He had a heart attack and passed away the night before the primary, in which Justice Spomer was running uncontested. Justice Spomer won the election and was reelected four times despite opposition. After that, by virtue of the Judicial Amendment in the State of Illinois, she became a Circuit Judge and was retained in office by large majorities until she retired in 1977.

In her twenty-seven years as a county or circuit judge, Justice Spomer saw Alexander County and its county seat of Cairo through times marked by radical legal and social changes and extreme racial tension. She was one of the defendants in a lawsuit that eventually was heard by the United States Supreme Court, O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488 (1974). In that case, nineteen Cairo residents alleged racially discriminatory bond-setting, sentencing and jury fee practices in criminal cases. The case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. At times it was scary to be involved in such racial conflicts, Justice Spomer reflected, but always vigilant in her intolerance for racism, she continued to uphold her judicial duties with impartiality.

In 1979, her retirement was disturbed by a phone call from Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph H. Goldenhersh asking her if she would accept a one-year appointment to finish the term of retiring Fifth District Appellate Court Justice Peyton H. Kunce. Justice Spomer talked with her husband and three children about it, then accepted the appointment. She was happy to be asked to take the office and was happy that she was in a position where she could accept the appointment. Her family was supportive, and her husband even drove her to the Mount Vernon, Illinois, courthouse for her first appellate court session. For Justice Spomer, back to the bench meant back to the books. Her days as an appellate justice pre-dated computer-assisted legal research and were, therefore, filled with long visits to the Southern Illinois University law school library in Carbondale, Illinois, preparing for the cases she would hear.

As a woman appellate justice, Justice Spomer did feel like a ground-breaker. Despite being the first woman to serve on the Fifth District bench, she believed that her male colleagues respected her and developed a camaraderie with her. "Women belong on the appellate bench," she said. "It's important for them to share their point of view with their men colleagues." She considers the recognition of women as capable judges and lawyers as one of the most important changes in the law since she entered the field.

Justice Spomer did not run for election when her term was over and retired once again in 1980. This time it stuck. Now eighty years old, she still lives in Cairo, Illinois, where she cares for her husband and has coffee with her son, Circuit Court Judge Stephen Spomer, every morning she can.

When asked if she had to make sacrifices for her success, she admitted: "It was a man's world, and I just had to accept that fact. You just do what you have to do in order to do the job and do it well." She attributes her success to hard work and resolution to do what has to be done.

Twenty-two years later: a second woman takes the bench

Justice Chapman follows ably in Justice Spomer's judicial footsteps. She was born in Granite City, Illinois, also the daughter of an attorney, Morris B. Chapman. At one point in his career, her father took time off from his law practice to be a missionary. As a result, Justice Chapman spent a part of her youth in Guatemala, where she learned to speak Spanish fluently. As a child, Justice Chapman thought her father's practice of law was exciting ­ one that she might want to try, too, because it seemed like it would afford her independence and autonomy over her life.

Despite early dreams of being a lawyer, Justice Chapman took a detour through the world of counseling. She began her college education at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, Mexico, but returned to the United States to complete her counseling studies at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. In 1974, she received her B.A. in psychology and Spanish, and in 1975 she received her M.A. in counselor education and began working as a counselor. She still toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer but thought she needed more maturity before tackling that goal. "I didn't have the gumption that Justice Spomer did," she admitted.

In 1974, she married Philip J. Rheinecker, a writer and editor. Five years later, in 1980, with her husband's strong support, she found the gumption to go to law school. She decided to go to St. Louis University School of Law even though it meant she would have a long-distance marriage for several years because her husband was in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Justice Chapman estimates that approximately one-fifth of her law school classmates were women, a huge growth from Justice Spomer's law school days, but she never took a course from a woman law school professor. Like Justice Spomer, Justice Chapman didn't feel like she was breaking any ground because of her gender in law school, but she does recall that some of the professors seemed to resent her presence in the class as if she were taking up a seat that should have been occupied by a man.

When she graduated in 1983, Justice Chapman went to work in her father's law firm, Morris B. Chapman and Associates, which focuses on personal injury lawsuits. Like Justice Spomer, Justice Chapman had extraordinary opportunities to learn the practice of law under her father's guidance. Research-oriented by nature, Justice Chapman credits her father for teaching her the realities of law practice beyond the books. She believes her father is an extremely talented litigator and has learned many of her lawyering skills from him, including never to take a position in the courtroom without law to back it up. Working with him, she was able quickly to enter the courtroom and learn from the real experience of litigating. Justice Chapman notes, however, that she has a different style of trying cases than her father and her other male cohorts. She believes that a litigation strategy that considers the difference in male and female viewpoints and approaches can make for a better outcome in the long run. Justice Chapman continued to practice with her father for eighteen years until she took the bench.

Justice Chapman believes that the time she spent in counseling has made her a better lawyer. In fact, she believes that her counseling experience complements her legal training by helping her understand the people involved in her cases. "I enjoy analyzing a case from an angle that includes the psychological perspective. I like to ask myself what jurors and witnesses are really thinking," she said. In addition, the time she lived abroad has also given her a broad life experience that allows her to have an open way of seeing things.

Previous appointments gave this justice a variety of perspectives on the law

In the eighteen years that Justice Chapman was in private practice, she had many accomplishments. For example, in 1997 she became the first woman on the Illinois Supreme Court's Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission Review Board. She relates with disappointment that she saw a decline in attorneys' civility toward each other during her tenure on the board and throughout her legal career. She believes that the prevailing approach in the legal field is becoming a "win at any cost" approach that is accompanied by a disregard for politeness and courtesy.

Justice Chapman also serves on the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Jury Instructions in Civil Cases, which drafts and edits Illinois pattern civil jury instructions, and was involved in starting "People's Court," a course through Southwestern Illinois College, formerly called Belleville Area College, at the Granite City, Illinois campus. That program aims to create a positive public awareness of the court system by walking course participants though a case and all of the practical steps involved in bringing the case to a final resolution.

Justice Chapman was elated to be appointed to the Fifth District bench earlier this year. She views her appointment as an opportunity to get back to the books after trial work and to be more analytical about the law, which she believes is in line with her nature as "bookish" person who likes to work independently. With awe, she recalls touring the Fifth District courthouse, a magnificent pre-Civil War building that includes living and working quarters for the justices. She describes the stately building in which Abraham Lincoln once argued a case as a very humbling place.

She looks forward to being the only woman currently on the Fifth District bench. She notes that in her eighteen years as a litigator, she did not have a single case in front of a female Illinois circuit court, appellate court or federal court judge. "It's time for a woman on the court--it's past time--and the court has been very supportive of me," she says. Like Justice Spomer, she believes that the appellate bench needs a woman's point of view, which can often be different from a man's point of view but which does not necessarily result in a different outcome. She looks forward to contributing one of the various points of view that makes for a healthy balance on the court.

In looking back on her career thus far, Justice Chapman wishes that she had had a woman attorney mentor, although she didn't really think about it in her early days of practicing law, when there were not many female attorney role models. She recalls that occasionally she sensed from her male colleagues that she was not welcome, and she would have appreciated learning of other women's experiences in similar situations. In response to sometimes unwelcoming attitudes, she learned to toughen up, to act like "one of the boys," and to pick her battles over the big issues. "I would like to see that change," she said, "so that female attorneys can be successful without having to act like male attorneys."

Justice Chapman attributes her success in large part to her ability to persevere. She describes herself as very goal-oriented, deciding what she wants and going after it. She offers very practical advice to other women attorneys: accept who you are and what you are and adjust the best way you can.

Being a successful professional and mom is a juggling act, Justice Chapman laments, with many problems springing from women's self-imposed expectations. "Women of my generation feel the need to be successful in a way that women of other generations don't," she noted. These women have more fulfilling careers, she believes, but expect more of themselves as well. "There will always be problems until society accepts and accommodates dual careers," she noted. In the meantime, she appreciates the support of her husband, who firmly believes that they can both succeed in their professions, and her two children, who are understanding when she cannot spend as much time with them as she would like to.

Women attorneys in Illinois, especially those within the Fifth District, can be proud of the contributions that Justice Spomer and Justice Chapman have made and continue to make to the integrity of the bench and to the legal profession. Take note and teach your children well that "girls can be judges."

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December 2001Volume 7Number 2