Influential Women

A Career of Firsts for Illinois Chief Justice Rita Garman

From county prosecutor to top state court justice, Garman has blazed trails

Illinois Supreme Court justice Rita R. Garman questions an attorney during oral arguments. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

After graduating from the University of Iowa law school in 1968, Rita Garman faced the first challenge of her career:  finding a firm that would hire a woman.

“They couldn’t imagine a woman lawyer,” she said. “They said, ‘What would we do with you? Nobody is going to talk to a woman,’” she said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.

Garman, or as she’s referred to these days, the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, has been described as a woman of many firsts.

In Vermillion County, she was the first woman assistant state’s attorney and first female associate judge. In Illinois’ Fifth Circuit, she was the first female to serve as a circuit judge and as presiding judge. She also was the first woman member of the Illinois Appellate Court, Fourth District.

Garman, 72, was the second woman on the state Supreme Court, but she was the first Republican and the first to serve in virtually every judicial role from associate judge to chief justice.

“She broke more barriers than probably anybody I know,” said Robert Anderson, the president of the Illinois Judges Association. “She was a trailblazer for women.”

Under Garman’s leadership, the Supreme Court has been united in a majority of its cases, said Kirk Jenkins, who chairs the appellate task force at Sedgwick Law and has attended every argument at the state’s highest court since 2008.

“They put an enormous emphasis on unanimity and speaking with one voice as often as possible,” he said.

Jenkins attributes the unity partially to Garman’s personal emphasis on civility. She greets the counsel when she calls the court to order. Her tone is never confrontational, even when asking lawyers contrary questions. When giving feedback on other justices’ draft opinions, she’s diplomatic with her criticism, said Janice Pea, a permanent law clerk for  Garman.

“There are people in the world who, when they see something they disagree with, will fire off a memo or pick up the phone,” Pea said. “She’s very careful about analyzing other opinions and raising any concerns she might have in a very diplomatic way.”

The court even has spoken with one voice on more controversial cases, such as a 2015 decision to rule against state lawmakers and strike down a pension reform law that would reduce benefits for retirees.

Gov. Bruce Rauner, also a Republican, has criticized the court as part of a corrupt political system in which elected officials, including judges, weigh issues involving interests that donate to their campaigns.

When she ran in 2002, Garman received hundreds of donations, including two from law firms that helped represent retirees in the pension case, according to the Illinois state board of election.

But Garman told Chicago Lawyer magazine after becoming chief justice in 2013 that she thought “politics plays no role in any of the issues that we have before us.”

Garman said the best way to select judges should be an open debate, but she isn’t a fan of having governors appoint them.

“I’d rather have it with the people than I would in some back room,” she said. “I’d rather take my chances and let the electorate decide.”

Garman has opened up the court, inviting the governor and legislators to see an argument.

As a circuit judge, Garman pushed the envelope on child abuse cases as one of the first judges to allow children to testify in court.

She also is known for spearheading a committee to ease the burden on children involved in custody cases.

Under her leadership, statutes were passed requiring them to be resolved within 18 months, and allowing the court to appoint a guardian to legally represent children in particularly contentious cases.

Emily Wilkins is an education and labor reporter at CQ Roll Call. Contact her at  EmilyWilkins@cqrollcall.com and follow her on Twitter @emrwilkins.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.