An Interview With the Chief Justice

Justice Anne Burke has set some very clear goals for her three-year term as Illinois’ 121st—and third woman—chief justice. While these goals are direct and straightforward, they revealed her passion for growing the court and the Illinois judiciary. At the same time, in discussing her goals in a recent conversation in her Chicago chambers, the chief justice revealed a background that was not so direct or straight on a path to her current position. 

Current court initiatives that she wants to continue include: communication with the legislative leaders through a series of individual lunches with some of the justices, the judicial college that includes judges, clerks, staff, sheriffs, and all of the stakeholders involved in the operation of the court system; increased use of standardized court forms; and the use of evidence-based information to assist bond court judges in exercising their informed discretion. 

Chief Justice Burke also explained her primary initiative in partnership with the Illinois State Bar Association of a series of listening tours throughout the state with the various stakeholders in court operations. She does not plan these sessions to be strictly local to the particular part of the state. Rather, she wants to draw stakeholders from different parts of the state to discuss issues and learn from their counterparts from other parts of Illinois. For example, she said Cook County’s chief judge, Timothy Evans, has expressed interest in participating in some of the downstate sessions. In addition, the Administrative Office of the Courts is designating staff to be a liaison with each of the appellate districts. She told me, “We need all of the people from across the state to work together as a team” to build a stronger judiciary. 

Working together, team building, and gathering facts were themes that arose several times in our conversation. “It is all about education and engaging people. We want to hear what people want and need to make things easier for the public and the courts.” Chief Justice Burke cited as an example the late Justice Seymour Simon’s consistent opposition to the death penalty. She told me his legal analysis was that the death penalty was “not being applied fairly and equally across the State’s 102 counties.” Chief Justice Burke wants to bring people together to gather facts to bring more consistency to the justice system. Another example she cited was South Dakota where that state’s supreme court brought stakeholders together to develop a uniform way to deal with the myriad of mental health issues facing the court system. Her goal is to apply what she learned from South Dakota to many different areas of law in Illinois. 

The chief justice wants to use technology as a vehicle to make the practice of law easier for attorneys and for the courts. One example, she told me, was the possibility of using Skype downstate to facilitate routine status calls to save attorney travel time and still keep the court informed on pending cases. This is all part of her plan for the listening tours, to engage people to identify problems and gather the facts necessary to find ways to implement solutions that can be applied in the diverse parts of Illinois. 

If this sounds like the words and goals of a schoolteacher, they are. Her first job was as a physical education instructor for the Chicago Park District. Getting there, however, was not a direct path. Justice Burke described her life as being one of doors opening and her stepping through them. 

Justice Burke told me that in high school at Maria on Chicago’s south side, her interests and strengths were in art and physical education, not academics. She credits one of her teachers at Maria, Sister Henrietta, with encouraging her to use those talents and become a physical education teacher. She first attended George Williams College, but dropped out to join the Chicago Park District as a physical education instructor. 

She developed a program of competition for the disabled children at West Pullman Park where she then taught. She told me those children flourished with the competition. The program caught the attention of Park District officials who encouraged its development. Along the way she met Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who then lived in Chicago and became aware of their volunteer programs for handicapped children. So, at age 21, she wrote to Mrs. Shriver seeking a grant for a city-wide program of competition for disabled children to be held at Soldier Field just like the city-wide track and field competition for other athletes. She described her initial disappointment when Mrs. Shriver rejected her proposal as not being good enough. So she took Mrs. Shriver’s advice and adapted the program to be more national in scope. The result was a grant and formation of the Special Olympics. The first competition held in 1968 was a big success. Justice Burke showed me the ante room just off her chambers with the walls lined with various photographs and posters depicting her life-long involvement with the Special Olympics. 

Justice Burke told me she then realized she could be better able to develop her ideas and persuade people to support them if she had a college degree. So, now married with three young children, and with the encouragement of family and friends, she enrolled at DePaul University and received her bachelor’s degree in 1976. 

Chief Justice Burke told me her life demonstrates “the need to be flexible when doors and windows open.” She firmly believes that “everything you do is a foundation for the next step.” For Anne Burke that next step was law school at Chicago Kent. That was not an easy step with four children under age ten and the need for tutorial help. She was successful and received her J.D. in 1983. 

She started a neighborhood law practice with four children under age ten and became a judge on the Illinois Court of Claims. That position led to other state appointments from governors Thompson and Edgar. Justice Burke cites as mentors in her early career as former Chief Justice Mary Ann McMorrow and defense attorney Patrick Tuite, among others. She described Justice McMorrow as “a woman I admired as a person, a woman who was regal, honest, and humane." Asked if being only the third woman among 121 chief justices meant it was time, she cited the career of Myra Bradwell who was denied the opportunity to become a lawyer because she was a married woman. 

Despite her public life and career of public service, Justice Burke is a private person. She was sworn in as chief justice in a private ceremony in Springfield with only her fellow justice present, not even her family. “I do not want to be a spectacle,” she told me. Her goal was “to be happy in what I was doing.” She described the appellate court has the best job because “it did not carry administrative responsibilities.” Yet, she is happy with her role as a justice on the supreme court and looks forward to the administrative challenge that go with being chief justice. 

Her pleasure is the collegiality of the court. She is, as one of her colleagues explained, the “social director” of the court. She arranged an outing for the justices to attend a performance of Hamilton together. She also arranged a tour of Ireland four which four of her colleagues were able to join her. Justice Burke told me she organized similar outings for her team when she was a justice on the first district appellate court. She described one outing on the CTA for lunch to view an exhibition at the Garfield Park Conservatory and another to view the changing neighborhoods along the CTA’s Orange Line to the southwest side. 

Look for emphases on collegiality, civility, and fact-based gathering of information and data to improve the functioning of the Illinois judiciary to be focuses of the Anne Burke term as chief justice. 

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November 2019Volume 50Number 4PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)