Female judges in Illinois: Where are we now?

This year marks the 140th anniversary of the first female attorney in Illinois.1 Female attorneys in Illinois have come a long way in the formerly man’s world. Some of the greatest progress in the past 20 years has been the increase of women in the judiciary.

circuit court2

% of women

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The percent of women serving as judges in Illinois has increased from 9 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2000 to 29 percent3 in 2012. While the number of female judges in Illinois has more than tripled since 1990, advancements have not been even across the state. Generally, the courts closer to Chicago have a higher percentage of females while women in the Southern part of the State have a lower representation. This article examines some of the statistics relating to females in the judiciary in Illinois and includes interviews with several female judges examining the role and experiences of these female judges.

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% of women

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Circuit courts average 29 percent females. Circuit judges can be further divided; 32 percent of women represent circuit judges and 25 percent represent associate judges.4 In 1990, eight circuit courts had only one female judge and many of them were serving in the associate judge position.5 Today there is not a single circuit court with only one female judge. There are only three circuit courts with no women serving as full circuit judges: the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth.

The circuit with the most females per capita is Cook with women representing 40 percent of judges. Outside of Cook, the Twelfth, representing Will County, comes in second with 34 percent. The counties not associated with Chicago and the Chicago suburbs fare worse in female representation. The Seventh Circuit, representing Springfield and the surrounding counties, has the least percent of women with only 9 percent. It was not until 2010 that the first female was appointed to the bench in Williamson County in the First Circuit in Southern Illinois.6

The appellate courts fare better with a 35 percent female population. Huge strides have been made on the Appellate bench since 1990 when only two women served in the entire state. Today, the most females are found in the First District, while the court with the highest percent of female is the Second District with females representing 50 percent of judges. Both districts make up Chicago and the northern-most part of the State.

In 2000, no female was serving in the Fifth District. Now the Fifth District has two female judges, Melissa A. Chapman and Judy Cates. This year, the Fourth District will also be welcoming its first African American judge, Lisa Holder White, adding one more woman to the bench. Despite this advance, both the Fourth and Fifth, representing the entire southern portion of the State, are behind the rest of the state in female representation on the bench.

In Illinois State Courts, the Supreme Court has the greatest female presence with three out of seven justices being female. In 2000, only one female was present on the Supreme Court, Justice McMorrow, who was also the first female appointed in 1992 and the first female Chief Justice elected in 2002.

Illinois federal courts have had mixed developments in the past twenty years. Currently 27 percent of the Federal Court system in Illinois is female. Female representation gets progressively lower from North to South.

The Northern District is composed of 27 percent females, the Central is at 18 and Southern is at 0. The Central District had only one female in 2000 and in 12 years only gained one other female. Although the Southern District has no females, it will have vacancies in the next year as two male judges retire. Could the first female be appointed to the Southern District?


% of Women

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The number of females on the bench can be contrasted with the amount of females that are practicing attorneys in the state. According to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee, in 2011 women made up 36 percent of all attorneys in Illinois, up from 30 percent in 2000. Women also make up 45 percent of all associates at law firms which is down slightly from 45.7 in 2009.7

The statistics suggest that female representation is closer than ever to reflecting the amount of females in the legal profession with women making up 29 percent of the bench and 36 percent of the field. The times are slowly changing.

A number of females on the bench in Illinois agree. One judge stated that the numbers “have improved and continue to improve.” Judge Archambeault from Will County suggests that the remaining imbalance is a “product of the times” and she remains positive that the imbalance will work itself out naturally as more males retire and more females enter the profession. In recent years she has seen women and men applying for judgeships and entering the bench in almost equal numbers. Judge Solverson from Jackson County in the First Circuit agreed. She believes the increase of women in law school in recent years will result in more females on the bench. As one judge put it, the bench is “slow to change, like legislation.”

Judge Melissa Chapman from the Fifth Appellate District brings up a couple of obstacles she has seen for women entering the judiciary. She says many women want to start families and others wait until someone asks them to run, rather than running on their own initiative. Judge Solverson agrees that many women wait for someone to ask them to run. However, she believes more young female attorneys are interested in becoming judges. Judge Solverson explained that female attorneys are exposed to more female judges and now see the bench as an attainable career goal.

No doubt women on the bench have increased in number but do these women face challenges because of their gender once on the bench? Judge Chapman remarks that “she faces the same challenges as the male judges.” Another female judge remarked that lawyers and the public care more about how the judge rules rather than the gender of the judge.

With respect to the challenges of running for a judgeship as opposed to being appointed, most judges agreed that women do not face a gender challenge. Judge Solverson pointed out that the main challenge for both genders is the time and financial commitment associated with running.

All judges interviewed for this article agreed that the profession has reached the point where males and females interact equally on the bench. However, the judges interviewed for this article reiterated the fact that the profession has come a long way. It was not that long ago that a female attorney was presumed to be the office secretary.

Despite the positive numbers in Chicago and the surrounding counties, the poor numbers in Central and Southern Illinois cannot be ignored. One judge remarked that working in a circuit with more females might create a more innovative and open environment for improvement. The same judge also remarked that having more qualified female candidates is the solution for female underrepresentation in the judiciary.

How can women become more qualified for a judgeship? The judges interviewed stressed the importance of trial experience, not necessarily working in private practice or public interest. Judge Archambeault remarked that her vast trial experience from private practice and knowledge of civil procedure made the transition to the bench much easier.

So how can female attorneys in Southern and Central Illinois start a career on the bench? All judges interviewed for this article agree on one thing; the first step to being a judge is taking an active role in your community. Join committees, work on campaigns, and socialize with judges and lawyers. “Get out there and be seen” says Judge Archambeault.

Judge Chapman advises future judges to learn networking skills, build relationships, and maintain a good character with both the public and legal community. Judge Solverson says aspiring judges need to make a mark on judges. She advises the best way to do this is to “do your job and do it well.” ■



* Professor Cindy Buys is a Professor of Law and the Director of International Law Programs at Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Law and Stephanie Macuiba is an SIU law student student expecting her J.D. in May 2013. Thanks to SIU law students Heather Abell (J.D. expected 2014) and Anna Newell (J.D. expected 2013) for their assistance interviewing female judges in Illinois.


The statistics from 1990 and 2000 have been provided by Alice Noble-Allgire and can be found in her 2000 publication Women Judges Rising in Number, But Still Scarce in Some Areas of the State, The Catalyst (ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law) 2000. The statistics from 2012 have been compiled by Stephanie Macuiba.


1. See Catherine D. Battista, Celebrating 140 years of female attorneys in Illinois, The Catalyst, (ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law) Vol. 18 no. 13, January 2013.

2. “S” denotes Southern Illinois. “C” denotes Central Illinois. “N” denotes Northern Illinois. These divisions are a general reference for the reader and do not represent any official court divisions.

3. Includes all state courts, federal courts and the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago.

4. Circuit judges are elected for a six year term. They can hear any circuit court case. Associate judges are appointed by circuit judges. An associate judge can hear any case, except criminal cases punishable by a prison term of one year or more (felonies). see Illinois Circuit Court General Information, Welcome to Illinois Courts, http://www.state.il.us/court/CircuitCourt/CCInfoDefault.asp (last visited Feb. 13, 2013).

5. Noble-Allgire, supra note 1.

6. Chris Bonjean, Smoot appointed first female judge in Williamson County, Illinois Lawyer Now (Nov. 17, 2010), http://iln.isba.org/2010/11/17/smoot-appointed-first-female-judge-in-williamson-county

7. Roy Strom, Report shows number of female associates slides, Chicago Daily Law Bull. (Dec. 17, 2012), http://www.chicagolawbulletin.com/Articles/2012/12/17/NALP-12-17.aspx?utm_source=subscriber&utm_medium=CDLBemail&utm_campaign=headlines&utm_content=1C )

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May 2013Volume 18Number 4PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)