Remembering Justice Thomas Fitzgerald
On May 11, 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court hosted a memorial tribute to another legal legend recognizing the late Justice Thomas Fitzgerald’s continued impact on the legal community.
Justice Fitzgerald was born in 1941. He served a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy and graduated with honors from The John Marshall Law School, where he founded the school’s Law Review. Fitzgerald was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1968. He had remarkable gifts to share with the legal community from an early age, quickly becoming the youngest elected Circuit Judge in Cook County. Thereafter, he ascended to the ranks of Presiding Judge of the Criminal Division.
Fitzgerald was a trailblazer who would formulate an innovative solution whenever he saw a need. While serving in Cook County’s Criminal Court, he saw that drug offenders were contributing to jail overcrowding and that they were receiving insufficient treatment options. In response, Fitzgerald helped develop an evening Narcotics Court to address these issues.
After Operation Greylord, he was appointed Supervising Judge of the Traffic Court to ensure that integrity was restored to the judicial process. Fitzgerald’s ethics and tenacity made him a fitting leader to help initiate reform after the bribery and case-fixing scandal.
Noting Judge Fitzgerald’s work in the community, in 1999, the Supreme Court appointed him Chair of the newly-formed Special Supreme Court Committee on Capital Cases. The Committee’s task was to assess and improve the administration of justice in capital punishment cases. Under Fitzgerald’s direction, the Committee drafted the rules that applied to trials involving the death penalty in Illinois, until the abolition of capital punishment in 2011.
In 2000, Fitzgerald was elected to the Illinois Supreme Court. During his tenure, he continued to bring positive changes and exemplify a commitment to service. Justice Fitzgerald deeply cared about our nation’s veterans and their access to justice. In 2007, he brought Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth, The John Marshall Law School, and the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA) together to develop an initiative increasing the delivery of the legal aid to those serving our nation.
After he became Chief Justice in 2008, he implemented several initiatives to improve the quality of instruction for members of the Illinois judiciary. He appointed a special committee to codify Illinois’ Rules of Evidence. He also presided over the impeachment trial of Governor Rod Blagojevich. Justice Fitzgerald worked diligently to ensure that our leaders would carry out their duties in a well-informed and ethical manner.
Justice Fitzgerald was known for his benevolence, sense of reason, and commitment to justice. In 2008, he received the John Paul Stevens Award and in 2010, was recognized as Chicago Lawyer magazine’s Person of the Year. His colleagues on the Supreme Court referred to him as a “model for integrity.” But perhaps his greatest honor comes from the testament of his family who continue to share and exemplify his wisdom and compassion. The late Justice is survived by his wife, Gayle, and five children, Maura (Scott) O’Daniel, Kathryn (Howard Chang), Jean (Shawn) Fendick, Thomas A. (Christina) Fitzgerald, Ann (Jason Butler), and eight grandchildren.
On May 11, 2016, the Supreme Court held a memorial service in honor of Justice Fitzgerald’s memory. It was an intimate gathering attended by leaders of our State, the Judiciary, and local bar associations. Many of those in attendance paid tribute by sharing their personal recollections and fond memories of the Justice.
Chief Justice Rita B. Garman delivered the opening and closing remarks honoring her friend and colleague, describing him as the “shining light of our Illinois Judiciary” and a “model of collegiality and cooperation.” Justice Robert R. Thomas recounted personal remarks that he recited before Fitzgerald during his retirement, and explained how those heartfelt words were “no less appropriate or true” today. He described Fitzgerald as a “kind and gentle spirit who always looked for the best in people and circumstances.” Justice Mary Jane Theis then shared how Fitzgerald was “an important part of restoring public trust” after Operation Greylord and the trial of former Governor Blagojevich.
Following the remarks of Fitzgerald’s colleagues, ISBA President Umberto Davi expressed how, “over the years, the ISBA has very much enjoyed working with Justice Fitzgerald,” and followed by sharing a copy of the September 2008 Illinois Bar Journal with those in attendance. The publication featured the Justice on the cover and contained a detailed and insightful article, written by Helen Gunnarsson, explicating Fitzgerald’s many meaningful and lasting contributions to the legal community. President Davi personally recalled his experience serving alongside the Justice on The John Marshall Board of Trustees. He described how Fitzgerald “was there to offer his quiet and thoughtful insight [...] offering his wealth of knowledge, analysis, and suggestions that invariably helped us all come to a resolution.”
Attorney Nicholas J. Motherway described how he came to know Fitzgerald while they began their careers working at the Cook County States’ Attorneys Office. Since that time “we were always in touch with the law and with each other,” Motherway stated. Motherway noted the friendship the two maintained over several decades and recalled the joy and honor he felt to have been part of Fitzgerald’s swearing-in as Chief Justice, in the very same courtroom, eight years before.
While each speaker knew Justice Fitzgerald in a distinct way, what each shared about the late Justice was his jovial demeanor. Accordingly, the Service celebrated the memory of Justice Fitzgerald in the good spirit Justice Fitzgerald would have desired. It was evident by the words spoken and the memories relived that the Justice made a lasting and positive impact on all of those he met.