DANVILLE — A longtime member of the Vermilion County legal community officially became a part of judicial history Monday as Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman was sworn in as the the second female chief justice of the state’s high court.
A crowd of almost 200 friends, family, legal colleagues and fellow judges packed the fourth-floor courtroom of the Vermilion County Courthouse for a ceremony late Monday morning as Garman officially was sworn in as the newest chief justice of the state supreme court.
The courtroom provided an appropriate backdrop for the ceremony as Garman worked for 12 years as an associate judge in Vermilion County before becoming a circuit judge and presiding judge in the county from 1986-1995. Garman was appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court on Feb. 1, 2001.
Despite having served at every level of the court, Garman acknowledged the idea of a woman entering the legal field as an attorney was not always an accepted idea.
“I can certainly attest from my own career that I couldn’t have dreamed, I couldn’t have dreamed, that I would ever end up as a judge and most certainly not end up as the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court,” she said following the morning ceremony.
“When I was a young girl, if went to school and said I want to be a lawyer, people would have thought I was a little strange for making statement like that,” she added. “They just didn’t think that was possible.”
With Monday’s installation ceremony, Garman follows in the footsteps of the late justice Mary Ann G. McMorrow, who served as the first female chief justice from 2002-2005. In addition, Garman’s four decades on the bench make her the second-longest running active official among the state’s 950 active judges.
Among Monday’s speakers was fellow state supreme court Justice Anne M. Burke, who related the hurdles Garman faced as she tried to study law at the University of Iowa.
Burke said Garman was told she would never practice law as an attorney and was attending the Iowa’s College of Law “only to catch a husband.”
Burke described Garman as a “courageous, intellectual woman.”
According to Garman, the court at every level needs to keep the focus on professionalism and civility.
“I think if you keep those issues in the forefront, there will be no barrier to individuals,” she said, adding that barriers based on gender and race are issues that need constant attention.
“We need to always work on that,” she said. “We have to be mindful that there are many that think our system isn’t as fair as it should be and we need to address those issues.”
Garman steps into the position held by Justice Thomas L. Kilbride, who was appointed chief justice in October 2010. Kilbride, who term as chief justice ended on Friday, conducted the actual swearing-in process at the ceremony.
As chief justice, Garman said she wants to continue the initiatives that have put in place, including the priority Kilbride put on technology for the courts.
“ I want to see use move forward so we have technology in every county and every circuit in the state of Illinois so that our system will work and you’ll be able to seamlessly track cases across the system,” she said.
She also stressed moving forward in cutting down the length of time during which cases move through the Illinois judicial system.
“We need to look at the best practices so courts in Illinois are using the most forward-thinking practices in handling all the cases and that we are moving case through the system,” she said. “There is a need to keep all the cases moving in the court system.”
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis was the first speaker of Monday’s ceremony, calling one of the most prepared when it comes to hearing cases.
“Rita Garman inspires others to follow her leadership,” she said.
Garman’s beginnings in legal practice began in Vermilion County where she served first as an assistant state’s attorney from 1969-1973. She moved onto private practice with Sebat, Swanson, Banks, Lessen and Garman in 1973. She moved on from Vermilion County Circuit Court to the Fourth District Appellate Court in 1995 before ascending to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2001.
Referring to her experience through her career as cumulative across all levels of the legal system, Garman advised prospective law students to immerse themselves in as many area of law in order to pick their interest.
“You never know where the journey is going to take you,” she said.