An interview with the Chief Justice

When he started practicing law 52 years ago, Lloyd Karmeier never imagined being an appellate court judge, let alone a Supreme Court Justice. Later, he told me when, at age 46, someone suggested he run for the Circuit Court, he thought he was too young, but he ran and was elected.

Justice Karmeier was raised on a small farm near Covington in Washington County. On that farm were the ruins of the courthouse where the Illinois Supreme Court first held sessions soon after Illinois became a state in 1818. This was just one twist of history Justice Karmeier recalled as we talked on the eve of his installation as the 120th Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. He said he even took his law clerks to the site where they could still see in the soil some of the red powder left from the old courthouse bricks. In fact, he has a brick from that old courthouse in his chambers.

A lifelong resident of Washington County, Justice Karmeier attended a one-room grade school and was valedictorian of his graduating class from Okawville High School. He is also the second Illinois Chief Justice from Washington County – the first was Justice Byron House, for whom Justice Karmeier clerked for four years after graduating from the University of Illinois College of Law.

Justice Karmeier’s goals for his term as Chief Justice center on advancing the Illinois Court system. To this end, he wants to continue the effort to bring E-filing to all levels of the courts in a timely and efficient manner and to ensure that the courts and legal services are universally available by continuing the Access to Justice Initiative. In addition, he wants to improve pretrial services to give judges who sit in bond courts all of the resources possible to make informed decisions on whether to set a bond and, if so, on what terms.

E-filing poses the challenge of melding into one compatible whole the different systems in the counties that already have E-filing and finding the resources to assist rural counties in establishing their own programs. The Court’s goal is to allow lawyers from their desks to have not only the ability to file documents in any court in Illinois, but to also have full-text retrieval of filed documents and court orders.

Improving pretrial services is especially important to Justice Karmeier. He recognizes that there is a certain percentage of defendants who are unable to post any amount of bond. He also recognizes that after a few days of incarceration, a defendant may lose a job, housing, and a family support system – losses that make it difficult for the defendant to be able to return to society. The goal of the Court’s effort to improve pretrial services, he says, is to give the bond court judges more evidence-based information so that they will be better able to determine an appropriate bond.

Justice Karmeier says his best preparation to become Chief Justice came from his more than 50 years practicing law and the lessons he learned at the start of his career from Justice House: to have a deep respect for the law and civility in the practice of law. Thereafter, he was also State’s Attorney in Washington County and clerked for a Judge on the U.S. District Court. In 18 years as a trial court judge, Justice Karmeier presided over a wide range of criminal cases as well as the full gamut of civil matters that appear on the docket of a judge in a rural county. He also served on and chaired the Supreme Court’s Committee on pattern jury instructions in criminal cases.

Justice Karmeier was elected to the Supreme Court in 2004 and retained in 2014. In his 12 years on the Supreme Court, recurring themes in the more than 100 opinions and dissents Justice Karmeier has authored are civility and judicial restraint. He provided a listing of cases he considered significant.

Justice Karmeier’s opinions reflect a reverence for the courts and the Judicial process. In his opinion for a unanimous court in the pension reform litigation, he noted the State’s financial challenges and said it is the Court’s obligation at all times to make sure the law is followed. “It is especially important in times of crisis when, as this case demonstrates, even clear principles and long-standing precedent are threatened. Crisis is not an excuse to abandon the rule of law. It is a summons to defend it. How we respond is the measure of our commitment to the principles of justice we are sworn to uphold.” In his dissent in a sharply-divided decision that barred a ballot initiative on redistricting legislative maps could not be on the ballot, he wrote: “If we do not permit this ballot initiative to go forward in accordance with the law, our authority over the redistricting process and, indeed, our status as an institution will forever be suspect.”

Judicial restraint is a recurring theme in his opinions. In one case, he wrote it was “appropriate to caution courts of review – particularly when constitutional issues are involved – that they are not free rangers riding about the legal landscape looking for law to make.” And, in another case Justice Karmeier wrote: “This court may not legislate, rewrite or extend legislation. If a statute, as enacted, seems to operate in certain cases unjustly or inappropriately, the appeal must be to the General Assembly, and not to this court.”

Justice Karmeier greatly appreciates the collegiality among his colleagues and the friendships that have developed. Civility and collegiality are important as he wrote in one case where he called both the majority and dissenting appellate court justice to task: “the tone taken by the dissenting appellate justice in this case adds nothing to his analysis. Unfortunately, that tone invited a footnote in the majority opinion which, again, added nothing to its analysis, but merely highlighted the tone of the dissent in this and other cases. While forceful argument in support of a position is to be expected …disparaging exchanges on a personal level contribute nothing to that process. Sound reasoning stands on its own. Personal disparagement diminishes the force of the argument, the stature of the author and the process of appellate review itself.”

One of Justice Karmeier’s joys in being on the Supreme Court is “working with his staff and colleagues and helping to interpret the law as it should be and staying true to our calling.” Another joy is “when finishing a case and feeling we have it right.” He does not go back and second-guess his opinions.

Justice Karmeier told me his philosophy of judging “is to not be in a hurry, to listen and exercise patience and understanding.” It is, he said, summed up in the phrase on the wall in the Supreme Court’s courtroom facing the justices: “Audi alteram partem” – “Hear the other side.” He encourages all judges to do just that. He particularly encourages trial court judges to explain their rulings – not just for the benefit of the parties and their counsel, but also to assist the reviewing courts.

A one-word description of Justice Karmeier from his colleagues is: “gentlemanly.” Justice Robert Thomas told me he has observed Justice Karmeier as liaison to the ARDC, the MCLE board and the Committee on criminal jury instructions and believes the strengths Justice Karmeier has shown make him well-suited for the duties of Chief in administering the Court’s business. Justice Mary Jane Theis agrees and told me that when Justice Karmeier asks a question during arguments, “everyone stops because his questions are always pointed and wise.” She praised his respect for legal history and added: “Because his experiences [as a native of rural southern Illinois] are so different from mine, I always take what he says very seriously.” Justice Thomas also referenced the down-home quality that Justice Karmeier displays – noting the garden plot Justice Karmeier tills adjacent to his office in Nashville. He said someone told him that plot is Justice Karmeier’s hedge in case the State’s budget crisis is never resolved. And, he added: “That’s exactly who I want presiding over the judicial branch of this state.”

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November 2016Volume 47Number 4PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)