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Illinois Supreme Court
‘Aim for the Top’
After a four-decade ascent that has taken her through all levels of the Illinois court system, Rita Garman becomes Illinois's second female chief justice.
While on her way to becoming valedictorian of the Oswego High School class of 1961, in what was then a very small farming community, Rita B. Garman decided she wanted to pursue a legal career. As a bright young woman at a time when bright young women were encouraged to pursue teaching, nursing, or secretarial work, Garman had other ambitions - but did not imagine where the law would lead her.
"I thought those were all noble professions, but I didn't think any of them were for me," she says of women's then usual choices. "[The law] appealed to me because of the breadth of opportunities. But I didn't dream I would ever be a judge. I certainly didn't dream I would become a supreme court justice, or chief justice. That was so far beyond the realm of possibility."
And yet effective Oct. 26, Garman, a Republican from the fourth district, is chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court - the second woman to do so after the late Mary Ann McMorrow - continuing her steady, four-decade ascent that has taken her through all levels of the court system. She has progressed from associate circuit judge, to circuit judge and then presiding circuit judge, to appellate judge, presiding appellate, and then the supreme court, to which Garman was appointed in 2001 and subsequently elected in 2002.
ISBA President Paula Holderman, who began practicing in 1979 in Champaign County, which had no female judges at that time, says Garman was "singularly noted" in central Illinois due to her gender. "We had few role models at that time," says Holderman, then the only female assistant state's attorney in Champaign County. "Justice Garman really was a beacon for women in that part of the state."
She continues to play that role, Holderman adds, mentioning a recent panel discussion she organized commemorating the 120th anniversary of the first meeting of women lawyers, at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Garman "told some really great stories about when she started in the '70s and maybe even late '60s, how different things were then," Holderman says. "One of the goals of our program - we had a lot of younger women in the audience - [was to help them] understand what women have literally had to fight for, in terms of being recognized as lawyers and judges."
ISBA immediate past president John Thies, a longtime friend, has worked with Garman as a bar leader and argued before her at both the appellate and supreme court level. "She's very aware of the importance of having a strong relationship between the court and the bar. She's always been there whenever I've asked her to do something for the bar," he says. As a jurist, "She's always been superbly prepared, and her opinions are very well reasoned. She's exceptionally well qualified to do this. She's served at every level of the judiciary in Illinois, which is pretty unique."
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis, who has known Garman well through judicial education work for the past 15 years and served with her since 2010, says the incoming chief justice brings a deep understanding of the state's court system.
"It's not just that she's survived this long," says Justice Theis. "She has sat in traffic court, she has sat in small claims court, she understands the appellate process." As the supreme court's liaison to the state's Conference of Chief Judges, she adds, Garman "continues to have an understanding of how courtrooms across the state are working, what the issues are, and how they need to be improved. She understands the court system from the bottom up in every single county in the state."
'Aim for the top'
Garman credits many people for believing in her along the way, starting with her parents, Sheldon and Ellen Bell. "My dad thought his daughters could do as much as his sons," Garman says. "I remember my dad saying, 'Aim for the top.'" Her mother had wanted to be a doctor, but instead went to work to help put her own brother through medical school, Garman recalls, which provided extra motivation to support her daughters' ambitions.
The future chief justice majored in economics at the University of Illinois, where she met her future husband, Gill, an attorney who's practiced in their adopted hometown of Danville for the past 45 years. They matriculated together to law school at the University of Iowa, where as one of five women in a class of 100, Garman learned to gracefully handle reactions that ranged from the unctuous, "Why does a nice girl like you want to do something like that?" to outright hostile queries from her professors: "Why are you taking up a space a man could have?"
"That didn't bother me," Garman says, and she didn't talk back because "they were handing out the grades. I kept my mouth shut and kept on working."
That all-too-typical-for-the-time sexism continued when Garman and her husband moved to Danville, and at first the future chief justice could not find a suitable position. "People would say to me, 'You're a nice lady, you're smart, but what would we do with you?'" she says.
But before long, a partner of Garman's husband asked if she would staff the public Vermilion County Legal Aid Society, which had lost its director and was in danger of being shut down. "I said, 'I don't know anything about running a law office,'" she recalls. "I learned to practice law like you learn to ride a bike: you just do it." She spent nearly a year handling landlord-tenant, domestic, consumer fraud, and other issues, and "I learned some very valuable lessons and met some wonderful people."
Opportunity knocked again 10 months later when the county state's attorney asked if Garman would join his office to handle family law cases, which she says were "how many women got into it." As part of a three-person office, she often found herself handling other types of cases as well, and Garman spent four years as an assistant state's attorney before briefly going into private practice in 1973 as part of Sebat, Swanson, Banks, Lessen & Garman.
But she didn't stay in private practice for long; the bench called Garman early, in the person of Circuit Judge James Robinson, who asked her if she had thought about becoming a judge. She hadn't. But "I was very flattered," she says. "There were no women on the court. He said, 'You have the right ability. You have the right temperament.' I like being able to see both sides."
Shortly thereafter, an associate judge retired and Garman figured, why not apply? The circuit judge asked her how old she was, and Garman answered that she was about to turn 30, which seemed to satisfy him as the minimum age of a person he could imagine having on the court. And Garman's gender was beginning to fade as an issue.
"The jurors commented more on my age than my gender," she says, adding that she recalls only "one or two cases" where an attorney made a motion for substitution because she was a woman. "When I worked at legal aid, the clientele didn't care that I was a woman. People accessing the state's attorney's office wanted my help, too."
Judge Ralph Pearman, who was chief of the Vermilion County Circuit Court when Garman first was appointed, says neither her age nor her gender mattered. "She was probably the youngest of the applicants and had the least experience in practice," he says. But "she had shown, with the cases she had been in front of everybody [arguing], the ability and intelligence and demeanor. She was an outstanding candidate. At that time, there weren't very many female judges in the state of Illinois, but she was so outstanding."
Garman was not only the first woman associate judge in her circuit, but one of only 10 statewide in 1974 when she first took the bench. She was also the first woman to run for circuit judge in the Fifth Judicial Circuit, in 1986. "The numbers didn't change significantly until the early 1990s," she says. And yet, she remembers a deputy clerk not long after she first became associate judge saying to her, "One day, you'll be on the supreme court." Garman laughed at the prediction.
During her years on the circuit court, Garman remembers learning much about life's heartaches, particularly in deciding often "terribly tragic" children's cases. "I had a wonderful life and a wonderful family," she says. "Children who are neglected and abused are robbed of something really precious."
Garman also remembers a murder case in which a woman and her boyfriend had stolen a man's car, tied him to a tree, shot him, and left him there to die. Then, they cleaned up and went to a party. "This young woman couldn't have looked more innocent," Garman says. "You don't forget those [cases]."
Among Garman's early mentors were the late Carl Lund, a circuit judge who later reached the appellate bench, as well as former chief judge Pearman. They were "people I looked up to, and tried to take their best practices and make them my own," Garman says. Lund urged her to decide cases expeditiously, "do your best job and don't worry if somebody is going to make an appeal."
"I took that to heart," Garman says. "I feel strongly about, 'justice delayed is justice denied.' " She's always mindful that parties to a case are waiting on her decision, and that in some cases, "It's been a long time since the event happened that brought them to court."
Pearman says Garman's election to full circuit judge was a no-brainer for him and others to support. "The whole bar association in Vermilion County appreciated her," he says. "She was courteous to the litigants and the attorneys.… She was intelligent, did a good job of research and reasoning on her opinions, and she was prompt in getting things done." He adds, "We were all in favor of her and helped her all we could. She got elected pretty easily, and her career kept going."
Upstate, downstate, circuit court, appellate court
As she rose to the Illinois Appellate Court, Fourth District, in July 1995, and then the supreme court six years later, Garman drew inspiration from the hard work and temperament of numerous colleagues, including McMorrow, the first woman with whom she directly served on the bench.
"It was a particular pleasure to serve with Justice McMorrow," Garman says. "To watch the way she handled the court's issues with grace and dignity - it was so typical of her demeanor and attitude. She was a very humble lady but extraordinarily smart."
Former Chief Justice Benjamin Miller, who first knew Garman through judicial committees and the circuit court, was instrumental in her initial assignment to the appellate court, and she then took his place on the supreme court. "We didn't directly work together, but of course I knew her by reputation," Miller says. "She's well-rounded, very smart, has good judgment, good common sense, works well with others, works hard herself. Everything you would want in a judge, she's got. She'll do a great job as chief justice."
Garman brings broad experience not just from having worked at all levels of the court system, but also for having spent time both downstate and in Cook County, Miller says. "She's very focused on the law both in administration and deciding cases, substantive or procedural," he says. "She'll bring a broad range of experiences and interests to the court. She'll be a great leader."
Justice Theis says Garman has impressed her and many others with the quality of her questions from the bench and the opinions she has written over the years. "Any supreme court litigant learns very quickly that when she asks questions from the bench, she's always laser-sharp and right to the issue," Theis says. "She's a great writer: her style is crisp and clean, her opinions are strong and elegant. And for a law nerd like me, they're a delight to study. You could do a whole CLE just studying the way she writes."
Garman says the recently deceased Justice Moses Harrison "couldn't have been kinder or more accommodating to me," and she also mentions former Chief Justices Robert Thomas, Charles Freeman and her immediate predecessor, Thomas Kilbride, as people with whom she has been "privileged to serve."
Thomas returns the compliment, describing Garman in short as "common-sense-oriented and solid." He adds that "she's unwavering in her ability to come to what she believes to be a just result.…She has tremendous integrity, she has a wisdom that comes across as we discuss cases, but also a humility, an ability to listen to the other side. One of the things that I appreciate about her is that once she believes her position is right and has listened to the other side, she is very strong in asserting it."
Holderman, who has served on numerous bar committees with Garman, says the justice has been held in great respect and high regard by other lawyers and judges. "She has always been somebody who, when people speak about her, they always speak in very respectful tones because she really just has been so gracious," Holderman says. Recalling that Harrison was described repeatedly as a "gentleman" during his memorial service, Holderman adds, "I need to find the appropriate word that is akin to that for a woman.… She treats everybody with great professionalism and civility."
Garman's co-chairmanship of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, of which Holderman is a member, shows the justice's commitment to access to justice - and specifically for younger people, Holderman says. "She cares about the litigants. She cares about the lawyers. And she certainly cares about the court as a symbol of fairness and process," she says.
Garman expects that her experience as presiding judge in the circuit court, where she handled budgetary matters, judicial assignment, and overall administration from 1987-95, and her shorter stint as presiding appellate judge, will bolster her ability in administering the supreme court's docket. "I'm not afraid to make a decision," she says. "I like to be inclusive. One of the greatest compliments I ever had was from someone who told me I was a great listener."
"She certainly has shown leadership already in participating in that administrative capacity," Thomas says. "You can tell that she certainly has what it takes to be a leader in that regard." He adds that Garman will be a "good face for the court. In the role of chief, I know from having done it for three years, she'll be asked to go to event after event. She's very polished and a good speaker."
Of all the many people who have supported and encouraged Garman throughout her long, illustrious career, probably no one has played as longstanding a role as her husband, Gill. "My husband is extraordinary," she says. "He is very supportive of me and has been from the day we met. He has encouraged me to do all I can do and is always there for me." Garman adds that her two children are "wonderful supportive children" and that "we are blessed to have three beautiful grandchildren."
Community activities always have been a big part of Garman's life, including membership in the Danville Rotary Club, director emeritus of the Danville Symphony Orchestra and the 708 Mental Health Board, and a board member of the University of Illinois Alumni Association.
"I have always believed that being part of the community was very important," she says. "I was active in the symphony because I felt quality-of-life issues were very important." Through her involvement with the mental health board, Garman adds, she gained greater familiarity with issues like disabilities and substance abuse that come up regularly in the court system. "The outside activities help you get a better perspective," she says, "and see what's important in the community."
"Her background, having been a legal aid lawyer, having served at every level of the court system, being from a community where she remained active even after becoming a judge, all those background characteristics will be useful to her as she takes on this very important job," John Thies says. "She really is a terrific person. She's well respected on the court, by other court members, and the bar thinks highly of her. We're fortunate that she's chosen to devote her energy and her intellect and her resources to public service all these years."
"Throughout all of her successes, she's always retained a gentle, lovely demeanor," Thies says. "She does not try to be a man in a man's world. She is who she is, and that's what's inspiring about her."
"On the supreme court, she has been a great role model for other women lawyers," Holderman adds. "But we shouldn't limit it to women. This is true for Justice McMorrow, too - they're great role models for all lawyers."
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.
Among other projects that may emerge over the course of her term, Chief Justice Garman plans to consolidate gains the court has made in upgrading technology, improving access to justice, and serving the needs of children.
As she begins her new role, Chief Justice Garman says she does not have preconceived ideas of particular initiatives to push, but plans to meet with her colleagues and reach consensus on ideas, "just as we do on opinions." She believes that "the richness of our system is that we have seven people who come from varied backgrounds and experience. I believe collective judgment is a superior product."
On a personal level, "We really get along well," Garman says of the current court. "We enjoy each other's company," and hold one another's differing viewpoints with "a lot of respect." She adds, "I look forward to the cases we have now and the cases we have coming."
Moving forward with technology. Garman expects the court to continue forward with technological initiatives begun under Kilbride's tenure, such as encouragement of electronic filing and other digitalization of the court's business, as well as a pilot project allowing cameras in the courtroom. She would like to engage with the appellate and circuit courts around technology.
"Our systems need to be able to talk to one another… so that we have a unified product," she says. Those systems should "capture the same data, so that it will be useful to all in assessing our system." She sees judicial education on technology, particularly for older and more experienced jurists, as essential to success because "you find a varying representation of electronic-savvy within the judiciary."
Multilingual justice, other access-to-justice issues. Garman also plans to continue the Commission on Access to Justice began under Kilbride's watch, which has eased the path for the poor and those with limited English proficiency in navigating the court system. While some might think of the latter as primarily a Cook County or Chicago-area issue, Garman says people in downstate Douglas County have told her how excited they are given the number of suspects picked up on I-57 who don't speak English or Spanish.
"It's a more difficult problem in many rural counties," she says. "In Chicago, you might be able to find somebody who is proficient in some [unusual] language. But you won't find them in downstate Illinois, in smaller counties." She sees the potential for online interpreters to help handle those sorts of situations.
Garman believes the supreme court's ruling in June extending limited scope representation to civil litigation will help those of limited means gain access, as well. "That was very well received by members of the bar," she says. "That will increase representation of people on a single issue or a single matter before the court."
Past ISBA President, John Thies says Garman has been very aware of access to justice and court funding since her days as a legal aid attorney. "She knows our courts are a very important part of the fabric of society," he says. "Keeping them properly funded goes a long way toward ensuring that we have timely justice and an independent judiciary."
Children and the courts. Garman particularly looks forward to continuing the work of the Special Supreme Court Committee on Child Custody Issues that she recommended the court establish, to ensure that children's best interests are the primary focus and that child custody cases be moved along in an expedited manner.
Garman's passion for protecting abused and neglected children dates to her days at the state's attorney's office, and "I've followed that [passion] throughout my career," Garman says. When she and former Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald raised the idea upon her appointment to the court in 2001, "We thought we should have a comprehensive review of how all juvenile cases were being handled." The committee's work led to the court adopting the 900 series of rules to expedite custody cases.
Garman feels a particular urgency when it comes to children's cases because of how short and fast-changing childhood can be. "A year in an adult's life goes by rather quickly; a year in a child's life can be the difference between being born and walking," she says. "Parents should be given every opportunity to raise their children," but if they are unable, the court must find another permanent solution as quickly as possible, Garman believes. - Ed Finkel