December 2016 • Volume 104 • Number 12 • Page 20
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Illinois Supreme Court
Lloyd A. Karmeier grew up on a southern Illinois dairy farm and was the first in his family to practice law. A few weeks ago, he completed the journey from one-room schoolhouse to Illinois Supreme Court chief justice.
Decades before he wrote the opinion that invalidated Illinois' 2013 pension reform law and faced tough election battles sparked by alleged conflicts of interest, newly installed Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier grew up on a dairy farm and attended a one-room grammar school in rural downstate Washington County.
The valedictorian of Okawville High School, where he lettered in basketball and baseball, Karmeier, 76, stood out among his classmates for a variety of reasons, says lifelong friend and Illinois State Senator Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville.
"One thing I knew for sure: I would never be the valedictorian of the class," Luechtefeld says. "He always has been [smart], was popular, was a nice athlete and was the kind of person who, if I had to say how he stands out, he seemed to never, ever let peer pressure bother him. He simply tried to do what was right."
Karmeier attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with expectations of becoming an engineer like his older brother. "I didn't think I could afford the six or seven years that it would take to go to undergraduate and law school," he says. "Sputnik went up, and all my high school teachers and advisers [encouraged] science, and math, and engineering."
There were no lawyers in Karmeier's family - and there still aren't, other than him - but he's realized that's not important. When he swears in new lawyers, he tells them: "To those of you who don't have uncles or parents or brothers or sisters who were lawyers, don't despair. I didn't have any either, and things worked out for me."
Named 2015 Person of the Year by Chicago Lawyer magazine, Karmeier realized during his first semester at U. of I. that law appealed more to him than scientific inquiry. He enrolled in the college of law, and by his 3L year, he was working for a local lawyer in Champaign who said he never hired law students to become permanent attorneys in his firm. That dashed Karmeier's hopes of staying in town with his girlfriend, Mary, whom he later married.
When then-Justice Byron O. House offered Karmeier a clerkship out of law school, he took it. Then his law firm boss subsequently surprised him with a job offer, but Karmeier already had committed to House. He told his third-year boss, "If you had just offered me a job earlier, I would have taken it!"
Clerkship and legal practice
The clerkship from 1964-68 proved to be valuable experience, and Karmeier later clerked for U.S. District Judge James L. Foreman from 1972-73. "I enjoyed the research and the writing," he says.
Karmeier practiced law for 22 years before first ascending to the bench, serving as part-time state's attorney of Washington County from 1968-72 and working in general practice with Hohlt, House, DeMoss & Johnson from 1964-86.
The law practice focused on miscellaneous transactional work, estate planning, and business litigation, and Karmeier spent many evenings before school, township, and county boards laying the legal groundwork for projects like new schools and water lines.
"It was a general rural practice," he says. "Through that, you get to know a lot of people. We represented school boards, city councils, water districts, fire protection districts. You end up connected, at some point, to almost everybody in the county. It certainly has given me a broad perspective on how local governments are affected by state laws. I have a pretty good understanding of that area of the law."
Don Bigham, a fellow partner from Hohlt, worked two offices down from Karmeier for a while. "I was amazed at the volume of clients he had, and how loyal his clients were," Bigham says. "He worked hard, and he had a good reputation as an attorney. Other attorneys held him in high regard for his ability as well as the way he dealt with clients."
Clarence DeMoss, another former law partner, recalls that he and Karmeier made good sounding boards for one another. "He's got a very good mind. He's very sharp," DeMoss says. "He got to the point, and he stuck with it until he got the answer. He's a very hard worker."
The experience in law practice also gave Karmeier an understanding of how judges' decisions ripple throughout communities. "If you're dealing with one client, it's one thing," he says. "If you're dealing with a village board, city council, the mayor, heads of departments, it gives you the ability to understand how decisions you make affect people, and how important it is."
Reaching the bench
Karmeier first ran for circuit judge in Washington County in 1986, at age 45, and it wasn't an easy decision to make because he liked his practice and enjoyed his partners. But rural judgeships don't come open that often, and he had passed up the chance once already, so Karmeier decided it was time.
"I was enjoying the practice of law, I was in the best years of my practice, as a partner, approaching senior partner [status] as the other partners got older," he says. "But I've been very fortunate. I consider myself a country lawyer and a country judge, and I was fortunate back in 1986 that a judgeship opened in my county. I got into the race very late. Had I not done that, I wouldn't be here today."
DeMoss, among those who spoke at Karmeier's swearing-in at the supreme court, reflects that his former partner has the right composure to be a judge. "He's very calm all the time and cool about things," he says. "We'd get into different situations, in court or other cases, and he doesn't fly off the handle."
As he got onto the bench and started writing opinions, Karmeier realized he had a knack for the requisite evenhandedness. "I found that if I wrote out the rationale for my decision, it helped me clarify in my mind if it was the right decision, and it helped lawyers understand why the decision went against them. I found out from lawyers that it helped them and their clients if they lost to see the rationale because it gave them the opportunity to file motions to reconsider."
Bigham appeared before Karmeier's court on many occasions. "You always left his courtroom feeling like you got a fair hearing," he says. "He listened to all sides of the argument, he was very respectful of the attorneys who appeared in his court, and he had a reputation among the bar of being an excellent judge. His ratings confirmed that."
Karmeier recalls an early case that boosted his confidence, involving his old high school and a teacher who had been discharged for failure to comply with policies related to reinstatement after taking a leave of absence. The case took several weeks, and the decision he wrote was fairly lengthy. When that decision was appealed, "The appellate court said, 'In an extremely well-reasoned order, Judge Karmeier said this,'" he recalls. "That reinforced my training with Justice House in writing opinions. It gave me the thought that if there was an opportunity on the appellate court, I might want to consider it."
Ascent to supreme court
As it turned out, Karmeier made the leap straight to the Illinois Supreme Court, elected first in 2004 and then retained in 2014.
Luechtefeld recalls Karmeier's initial reluctance to take that leap. He says Democrats in St. Clair and Madison counties, which combine for more than one-third of the population in the 37-county district, typically controlled the seat. Then-Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson asked Luechtefeld if he knew of any Republicans who would have a shot at winning.
"It took us awhile to talk [Karmeier] into it," he says. "That's not an easy race. It's 37 counties, he's a Republican and normally Democrats pretty well dominated. Finally he agreed, 'I will do it.' And anything he decides to do, I guarantee he will do it right. He doesn't do anything halfway. We won it rather easily."
But there were bruising election battles along the way, with opponents protesting that Karmeier should have recused himself from cases involving State Farm and Philip Morris, because they allegedly had contributed to his campaigns.
Karmeier has insisted he received nothing. "I am very comfortable with the fact that I received no contributions from Philip Morris or State Farm," he says. "Neither of those entities spent money on my behalf." And to whatever extent they might have spent money to help him indirectly through groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "I was not aware of [it], and could not have been aware," he says, adding that State Farm has given money to the Chamber before and since his campaigns.
But Karmeier is resigned to the fact that those cases will keep surfacing. "I was extremely disappointed in the tone of the retention campaign," he says. "I think about $2.6 million was spent in 16 or 18 days. We were prepared to put a little information that I was running, and that was the extent of it.… I understand that every time my name is mentioned in any detailed background, those cases come up."
Karmeier's name also will be closely linked with cases in which he has written either governing opinions or dissents. Perhaps most notable is In re Pension Reform Litigation, 2015 IL 118585, in which the court unanimously struck down the 2013 pension reform law on the grounds that it violated the pension protection clause of the state constitution.
"It has such a profound effect on so many people in Illinois, when the state is so clearly in financial straits," Karmeier says of the decision. "But as we indicated there, even though there was a crisis, that was not an excuse to abandon the rule of law, it was a summons to defend it. That resonated with the people who benefited but also with the lawmakers. They said, 'Yeah, that's the right decision. We need to step up to the plate and do it right.'"
Luechtefeld says the explanation in Karmeier's opinion was very clear to lawmakers. "The way he explained, and why, I thought was very well done," he says. "There is a fairly obvious sentence in the constitution which says pensions may not be diminished. It's pretty simple. I know pensions are in trouble, and I wish we could find a way to fix them. But it's not going to be easy because they're saying, 'Unless you amend the constitution, this is how we feel.'"
Karmeier joined the two other Republican justices on the dissenting side of the even more recent case in which the court struck from the ballot for this fall a proposed initiative to amend the constitution to change how legislative districts are drawn, Hooker v. Illinois State Board of Elections, 2016 IL 121077. "We set out in great detail why we thought that was something the State of Illinois should have the opportunity to vote on," he says of his 39-page dissent.
Agenda as chief justice
As chief justice, Karmeier hopes to continue initiatives started by his predecessors but does not have any preconceived new proposals. "We've got a lot on our plate," he says. "Generally, I hope to do the best job I can. I've never shirked work. I've always told myself and my family, work hard and do the best you can."
Karmeier plans to continue former Chief Justice Robert Thomas' Commission on Professionalism, whose mission is to promote professionalism and civility and eliminate bias in the judicial system. "That is going very well. We've increased funding to it just recently," he says. "I have a total commitment to it and to improving the standards of ethics and professionalism on the bench and the bar."
Another initiative that Karmeier will move forward is the Access to Justice Commission started by former Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, which is charged among other things with making the Illinois court system easier for poor and vulnerable people to navigate. "My understanding is it's helpful, and we are not getting any adverse reactions from lawyers," he says. "It's giving people who can't afford lawyers, in any sense of the word, the opportunity to appear in court."
In addition, another initiative Karmeier would like to move forward that would help those of limited means is the statewide effort to overhaul pretrial services and detention practices by 2020, as part of the nationwide 3DaysCount campaign.
As a way to guide the bail decision, courts would leverage evidence-based assessment tools such as the type of crime allegedly committed and the defendant's overall risk profile to decide who needs to be detained prior to trial.
Karmeier sees this as part of the larger context of the justice system beginning to make more intelligent distinctions between violent and low-level offenders. "They may not have to be [in jail] to satisfy the reasons we set bail," he says.
On other fronts, Karmeier would like to complete the court system's e-filing initiative by getting all courts up and running by the 2018 deadline, implement recently developed standards for drug and specialty courts that he believes will keep people out of jail who don't need to be there (which may, at times, overlap with the pretrial effort but is a separate initiative), and concentrate more heavily on how best to deal with the scourge of opioid abuse. "I don't know that we have the commitment here in Illinois yet from all the would-be players, but that's a place we need to concentrate," he says of the latter.
Finally, Karmeier would like to see the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts ramp up efforts to assist trial courts in efficiently and uniformly delivering justice. "We have such a diverse state," he says. "Cook County is a world unto itself. We will bring together Cook County and downstate judges and see how different problems are handled differently. We need to make sure we're dispensing justice fairly."
That could include Cook County judges learning more about how their downstate counterparts handle juggling cases ranging from traffic citations to divorces all in one day, while rural judges gain familiarity with the more specialized urban court systems. "It helps us understand better the problems [we] face," he says.
Steve Miller, senior law clerk for Karmeier who has worked for him since 2004, says his boss is a consensus builder who comes to each case extremely well prepared.
"Justice Karmeier reads every brief and is totally conversant with the arguments and the law before he goes into oral argument or conference with his colleagues to vote on a case," Miller says. "That's one of his hallmarks as a judge. He's also very deliberate and open-minded. He always wants to consider problems from every perspective before making a decision. He's scrupulous about doing that.… He's a moderator in the best sense of the word."
Part of what facilitates open discussion in Karmeier's chambers is that he brings in staff and interns from diverse backgrounds, Miller says. "He hires people who he thinks will bring something to the conversation," he says. "He's interested in hearing their perspective. He wants the interplay of different points of view. That helps him feel confident he's reaching a just result."
Bar, community, and family
Throughout the arc of his career, Karmeier has been no stranger to the Illinois State Bar Association. He served on the Trusts and Estates Section Council in the mid-1980s while still practicing law and moved to the Bench and Bar Section Council starting in the early- to mid-1990s, where he served as chair.
"As everyone on these councils says, although we're doing work for the ISBA, it benefits each of us greatly because we see how matters are being dealt with across the state," Karmeier says. He also served as an ISBA Assembly member from 1996 to 2002, which meant "being involved in some of the major policy decisions."
Karmeier has contributed to the broader profession in other ways. For example, he served on the Supreme Court Committee on Jury Instructions in Criminal Cases, which he chaired for a time. "That brought together good lawyers and good judges who had different points of view on good law and good justice," he says.
"In both of those capacities, with the supreme court committee and with the bar association, I got to know a lot more lawyers and a lot more judges," Karmeier adds.
Outside of chambers, Karmeier enjoys playing golf, working in his yard, and spending time with Mary - they have been married 51 years - and his two daughters, one an accountant and one a banker, and six grandchildren. He's enjoyed watching two grandsons play football, in one instance against one another, and he has granddaughters who play volleyball and basketball.
"We have a swimming pool in the backyard, so it's been a congregating place for the grandkids," he says. "If I had lost the election in 2004, I probably would just be farming."
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.