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

Justice Karmeier Retires

Just four days after completing his term as chief justice, Justice Lloyd Karmeier announced his intention to retire effective December 6, 2020. 

Three years ago, Justice Karmeier set several goals he wanted to achieve during his term as chief justice. He wanted to accomplish e-filing at all levels of the court system, he wanted to improve access to justice, and he wanted to improve the delivery of pretrial services. 

E-filing is now the norm at the trial and appellate levels. The supreme court has approved standardized forms in many sections of the circuit courts, a process that continues. Evidence-based initiatives are being used to provide judges who sit in bond courts all of the resources and information possible so they can make informed decisions on whether to set a bond and, if so, on what terms. But, of the initiatives Justice Karmeier told me recently may help determine his legacy as chief justice are two things. One that may have a long-term effect is the strategic plan for the court system that the supreme court announced this fall. The second, which he hopes is not short-lived, is greater funding for pretrial services. That portion of the supreme court’s budget has received many millions more dollars this fiscal year than past budgets. This, Justice Karmeier told me, will enable the court to more adequately reimburse the counties for the probation and other pretrial services they provide. In the past, the fixed nature of most of the court’s expenditures has resulted in less than full reimbursement to the counties for those services as the court balanced its budget. Justice Karmeier hopes that funding can continue. 

Other accomplishments Justice Karmeier points to include a reconstituted and streamlined Judicial conference with fewer members and more committees to implement, among other things, a broader education component for all portions of the court system. This includes judges, clerks, staff, and other participants in the administration of the judicial system. 

At his retirement next year, Justice Karmeier will have practiced law for 56 years, 22 as an attorney and 34 as a judge. His first job after law school was clerking for supreme court Justice Byron House, also from Washington County where Justice Karmeier was born and lived his entire life. He also clerked for a federal judge, served as states attorney and was engaged in the private practice of law during the 22 years before he was elected a circuit judge in 1986 in Washington County. He was a trial court judge for 18 years hearing the wide variety of criminal and civil cases that a judge in a rural downstate county sees on the docket. Judge Karmeier told me he believes he tried the first capital murder case in St. Clair County early in his career as a trial judge. As a supreme court justice, he wrote several key decisions, among them the one that reaffirmed the principal that the upheld the rights of government employees to not have their pension benefits diminished. He also dissented from the supreme court’s decision to remove a proposed legislative redistricting amendment from the ballot. 

In 2004, Judge Karmeier was elected to the supreme court in what was then the most expensive judicial election in Illinois history. Justice Karmeier told me the surprise came in the well-funded, last minute opposition in his retention race in 2014. He narrowly survived that challenge to keep his seat on the supreme court a result that enabled him to become chief justice in 2016. 

Justice Karmeier said he has already begun to enjoy the quieter pace of no longer being the chief justice. He told me that when he became Chief, he was surprised at the number daily calls with the Administrative Office. He said there are already fewer emails and communications coming into his office. It is not that Justice Karmeier did not enjoy the responsibility and additional work being chief justice entailed; he did. He told me after he retires from being a supreme court justice next year, he will miss the collegiality of the court and the interactions with his colleagues. Civility and collegiality are important as he wrote in one case where he called both the majority and dissenting appellate court justices 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 for appellate review itself.” Justice Karmeier said that in his 15 years on the supreme court while there have been strong disagreements on interpretation of cases, none of those disagreements has been on a personal level. 

Justice Karmeier told me the key things he learned from his clerkship with Justice House early in his career was to be thorough, do his own research, and maintain a strong notion of fairness. One of the principals that has guided his judicial career, he said. was the desire “to do what is right.” 

For the future, after retirement, Justice Karmeier wants to spend more time with family. He has a daughter and three grandchildren in Colorado that he wants to spend more time seeing. He and his wife, Mary, want to travel. And, he told me they want to spend more time at their home in Florida. Justice Karmeier told me he has worked full time in the law for 56 years. He said that pulling the trigger and setting a retirement date was a difficult decision, but, he said, “I have no regrets.” He told me he wanted to leave the bench while he is still in good health and “at the top of my game.” 

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