Destination: Chief justice

Destination: Chief justice
December 2013

Rita Garman had been the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court for just 10 minutes.

“Good morning,” she said, dressed in a navy-blue skirt suit, smiling at the eight reporters and two TV cameras assembled in front of her for a brief question-and-answer session.

“What are you, um, most looking forward to?” someone asked.

By now, most of the 200 or so lawyers, judges, politicians and Garman family members had left the fourth-floor courtroom in Danville, where Garman had raised her right hand, repeated a few words from outgoing Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride and became the 119th person — and second woman — to head the state’s high court.

It was the culmination of a 40-year career unique in Illinois’ judicial history. Garman, Chicago Lawyer’s Person of the Year, has held virtually every possible position in the judiciary — from associate judge to chief justice.

The ceremony, the court’s spokesman said, garnered more media attention than any chief justice installation in recent history, with even requesting to stream the event. (Kilbride didn’t have an installation ceremony, due to an acrimonious retention battle that ended shortly before he became chief justice.)

As her 37-year-old son Andy snapped pictures with his phone, Garman was holding her first, and probably last, impromptu news conference as the leader of Illinois’ more than 950 judges — in the same east-central Illinois courtroom she called her own for parts of nine years as a circuit judge, and where Danville lawyers came to know a woman they said they figured, even early in her career, was bound for a higher court.

News conferences — let alone a media scrum — are rare for a Supreme Court justice.

Maybe that’s due to the tensions between a judge’s analytical nature, the fact that they typically don’t comment on pending or potential litigation and the answer-me-now inquiries reporters can feel compelled to ask — something that showed up in the third question Garman faced.

“You’re coming in at a time when a potential pension case could come up,” one of the reporters stated. “How is that going to — what kind of dynamic will that mean?”

Behind Garman, the court’s spokesman bristled. The question presumably is about how Illinois’ high court would rule on a legislative change to the state’s pension laws — should such a bill make its way through the legislature, be signed into law, be challenged with a lawsuit and, finally, make its way to the Supreme Court.

“We deal with all the difficult cases,” Garman said, her deep blue eyes remaining fixed on the questioner. “As I tell my law clerks, if the cases weren’t tough, they wouldn’t need us. So we’re used to dealing with very difficult issues and we know that we are the ultimate decision-maker as to the constitutionality of laws that are passed in the state of Illinois.”

Despite her willingness to outline the question, it was nearly impossible to answer. Other inquiries could have invited awkward responses, but Garman deftly handled the six-minute session, giving well-reasoned answers, a faint smile and a gaze that never wavered from the person she was addressing.

“Have you embraced,” another reporter asked, “the femininity that goes along with your role? Can you talk a little bit about that?”

“I enjoy being a woman and I bring that perspective to the bench,” Garman said. “I’ve never tried to act like a man. … When I was expecting my second child, I was a judge and some people were very surprised at that time that a woman that was expecting would be sitting on the bench. Well, it didn’t affect my brain. It didn’t affect my ability to reason, of course.”

And that, after all, was largely why Garman’s installation ceremony was so well-attended. It was a celebration of a woman at the pinnacle of her career who used a dedication to logic, a matter-of-fact way of thinking, to master a profession — and its politics — that was at times openly hostile to women.

‘I’m going to law school’

About 15 minutes before that pack of reporters stood in front of her, Garman gave a speech in which she spoke about her parents not abiding by a culture geared toward a one-gender workplace.

Garman grew up with an older brother and sister in Oswego, when it was still a small farm town about 90 minutes west of Chicago. They were the children of a dentist father, Dr. Sheldon Bell, and a homemaker/dentist’s business manager mother, Ellen.

Rita GarmanHer father encouraged his daughters and son alike to “aim for the top,” Garman and her siblings said.

“He thought that women could do great things,” said Lynn, Rita’s sister. “He believed that a job was a job and that if you were qualified for a job, you could do it regardless of what you were, who you were, where you came from or what your sex was. And that is probably one of the things that helped (Rita) in her life.”

Garman’s mother was an example of an intelligent woman who was — in Lynn’s words — “the power behind the throne.”

Her mother was accepted to medical school but couldn’t attend. Her family could only afford one medical school tuition and that was her brother’s. She would go on to be her husband’s business manager, filing taxes and bookkeeping.

“I think Rita saw a woman who could achieve,” Lynn said. “In some ways, that shaped Rita, because she saw a woman who could really do many, many things and be humble about it.”

“I think a lot of it was the town we came from,” Garman’s brother, Sheldon, said. “There were only 1,000 people in Oswego at the time. My (high school) class was 45 students. ... (It was) a small class. A lot of farm kids and working people. We all were brought up as humble people.”

While her parents pushed her to aspire to an admirable career, Garman said she also wanted to be able to take care of herself. Garman’s father was 40 when she was born; her mother was 38. As a young girl, she might have thought, she said, about what would happen if they met an early death.

Becoming a lawyer seemed like the best way to become self-sufficient, she said, even if “people just really couldn’t imagine that a woman who appeared otherwise reasonable would make such a choice.”

“I always felt I wanted to be married and have children and I felt like I have to be able to take care of them,” Garman said. “Because if something happens to my spouse, I need to be able to be ready. That was kind of a driving force for me.”

It took her to the University of Illinois, where she graduated in the top 10 of the College of Commerce — and also met Gill Garman. She convinced him to follow her to the University of Iowa College of Law instead of taking a job cracking codes for the National Security Agency.

“I said, ‘Well, you can always do that later, but I’m going to law school,’” Garman said.

Finding a home

After Garman’s installation ceremony, a troupe of lawyers, judges and politicians — including the entire Supreme Court, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and a number of circuit court chief judges — headed to the Danville Country Club.

Leaving the L-shaped Vermilion County Courthouse, you drive north through a snoozing stretch of downtown Danville that seems to feature as many empty storefronts as occupied ones. On the 10-minute car ride across the roughly 33,000-person town, you pass neighborhoods and drive through a strip of land dividing Lake Vermilion that is wide enough only for a two-lane road.

When Rita Garman came to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2001, she was just the second female member in its history. Since then, two more women have joined the seven-member panel — Justice Anne M. Burke (left) and Justice Mary Jane Theis.
Photo by Ralph Greenslade.

Inside the country club, Garman shook guests’ hands in a 20-minute line for shaved turkey and prime rib. The scene almost feels like a Garman family wedding reception — and not just because of the 30-strong family portrait being taken outside.

For Danville lawyers, it’s a point of pride that one of their own has made it all the way to the top of the Supreme Court.

“It’s hard to separate her from the community, to tell you the truth,” said Jerry Davis, a Danville lawyer and former judge who chaired Garman’s first circuit judge election. “I think everybody thinks of her as a Danville judge.”

Danville has been Garman’s home since she began practicing law upon graduating with honors from Iowa’s law school.

Like any good lawyer couple, Garman and her husband took an analysis of the state before moving here, law degrees in hand, in 1968.

First, there was an option to work in Chicago, where Garman traveled by train from Oswego to conduct interviews.

“I saw these people get on the train; they folded their newspapers in a prescribed way and they didn’t really talk to a lot of people,” she said.

“And coming back out, there would be people that knew each other; they’d take their (briefcase), turn it over and deal out hands of gin (rummy). And without saying anything, they’d deal three hands instead of four and some guy would get up and leave at the next stop. And I said, ‘Oh no. Nuh-uh. I don’t like that.’ ... I just thought it was too regimented and way too unfriendly. I grew up in small-town America where you knew people and you talked to people.”

Then, there was Champaign or Oswego, where the couple’s families lived. That wouldn’t do, either.

“My father always said, ‘A prophet has no laurels in his own land,’” Garman said.

Danville topped the list because it was, at the time, the site of a state and federal courthouse. While her husband — now a partner at Kesler Nelson Garman Brougher & Townsley — found a job, she was left in the lurch by a legal profession unwelcoming to women.

“That’s when I encountered people saying to me, ‘Well, you appear to be a nice lady. And you have an excellent academic record. But what would we do with you?’ And I would say, ‘Well, what do you mean what would you do with me?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, nobody wants to talk to a woman lawyer. No businessman is going to come in and talk to you about their business issues. They’re just not going to do it. So we just don’t know how we would utilize your services.’ So there just wasn’t much to say to that,” Garman said.

She was asked other questions: Can you make coffee? Can you type? Can you do research? And what about your family life? Do you intend to have children?

“They asked me the type of questions that today people would find actionable,” Garman said. “And I attempted to answer the questions as best I could, without embarrassing the question and without embarrassing the questioner.”

A judge’s temperament

She struggled to find a job until the legal-aid office in town lost its director. A lawyer her husband practiced with called and asked if she would staff the office to prevent it from closing. She said yes.

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Rita Garman.
Photo by Lisa Predko.

Legal-aid clients didn’t care that she was a woman or that she was “grass green,” Garman said. They were just happy someone was listening to them; Garman was just happy to have a job.

Her time in that position lasted about a year, until the state’s attorney — an office she couldn’t land an interview with upon coming to Danville — asked her to handle family law cases for $15,000 a year as an assistant state’s attorney.

She took the job and worked there for about four years. Toward the end of her stay, a circuit judge asked if she ever considered joining the bench. She had not, but he swayed her.

“He said, ‘You should think about it. You have the right ability to do it and I think you have the right temperament to do it,’” Garman said. “And I thought, you know, I probably would. Because I’ve always been a person who likes to look at both sides and come to a reasonable decision.”

When an associate judge position came up in Danville in 1973, she filled out an application. By that time, she was known by the circuit judges who would select someone to fill the seat. And if they looked past her, “I can’t be any worse off,” Garman said.

As she, her husband and 2-year-old daughter traveled to Oswego on Christmas Eve in 1973, WGN-AM 720 reported that a woman had been appointed as a judge in downstate Illinois.

“That was the headline,” Garman said. “No name. A woman. That’s all they said. And I knew who that was. So that was a great Christmas.”

In the 40 years since she became the first woman judge in her circuit at age 30, Garman has worked at every level of the state court system. She has been a circuit judge, presiding circuit judge, appellate justice, presiding appellate justice, Supreme Court justice and, now, chief justice.

For 12 years, she heard cases as an associate judge, before deciding to run in 1986 for a vacant circuit judgeship. It was the beginning of her political career.

She enlisted Davis, “a well-regarded young lawyer,” she said, to manage her campaign. Her team also got advice from then-Appellate Justice Carl Lund, who made clear his desire for Garman to run for circuit court judge.

Lund, who is now deceased, and Davis helped Garman decide what events to go to and how to canvass the 5th Judicial Circuit — a backwards-L-shaped conglomeration of five counties on Illinois’ eastern border.

“It really was a trail,” Davis said. “It monopolizes your time and your stomach. I always kidded her and said, ‘We’re going to have to get you a plastic purse, because you don’t want to be rude and not eat’” during a schedule that sometimes included three dinner events a day.

Showing political instinct, Garman reached out to all the lawyers in the county she thought might run for the opening. She told them she was going to run and asked if they would support her. They all agreed, so she had no primary challenger on the Republican ticket.

Garman spent that first Election Day in 1986 with her father, who was on his deathbed. She didn’t learn the final vote total until she traveled back to Danville the next day.

In an interview the day after becoming chief justice, Garman became emotional — speaking in short sentences and holding back tears — when she recounted the phone call she made to him after her victory.

“When I won, I called him,” Garman said. “And my sister said, ‘You tell him.’ And I told him. And he tried to talk and he smiled — and passed away. He was a man of great faith. But I think he wanted to make sure what the outcome was. And I did it. So he was happy. He died a happy man.”

‘Ahead of the curve’

Her relationship with her mother and father — she said she had a “magnificent childhood with wonderful, loving parents” — is a large part of why she will be remembered for her work to expedite cases involving child custody in Illinois.

The first initiative she brought to the Supreme Court was a committee on child custody cases that resulted in the 900 series of Supreme Court rules. Those rules expedite cases in Illinois courts involving children because, as the rules put it, “When a child is a ward of the court, the physical and emotional well-being of the child is literally the business of the court.”

Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis said Garman’s stance as a judge — that each case is “more than a stack of papers” and part of a human life — began in her role as a circuit judge in Danville. It was largely born out of cases involving child abuse, Theis said.

“Those cases stay with her,” she said.

Craig DeArmond, a circuit judge in Vermilion County who was state’s attorney during Garman’s time as a circuit judge, said Garman was pioneering in her approach to allow young witnesses to testify in their own abuse cases.

“Some of the things we were doing, there was really no law on it yet,” DeArmond said.

“The big question was will she consider this … or will she be afraid to consider it because of what might happen at the appellate level? And she was willing to consider it.”

Most of what she agreed to let DeArmond do — including allowing as evidence the unprompted testimony of witnesses as young as age 5 — have since been passed as laws. Even in some instances when the evidentiary rules she allowed in court were reversed on appeal, such as allowing closed-circuit TV statements, they have subsequently been codified.

“Eventually, the law was going to go that way,” DeArmond said. “She just happened to be ahead of the curve.”

When asked if she remembers any of the cases that DeArmond tried in front of her, Garman recounted a story about a father who abused his three daughters.

The oldest was around 14 and provided testimony in the case — which centered on whether or not the children should be returned to live with the father. The two younger daughters had little to do with the proceedings.

“I will never forget the look on that man’s face when that girl testified,” Garman said. “I just can see it in my mind right now. It was enlightening. It was almost intimidating to her.”

Perhaps more memorable — and what emotionally affected Garman as she talked about it — was the message she got from the youngest daughter after the case ended and the girls were free of their father. It was a card with a radiating, yellow sun and a simple message: “I love you.”

“You don’t forget those experiences,” Garman said.

Courtrooms, politics

Of course, being a judge isn’t all touching moments. In Illinois, making it to the Supreme Court also requires a firm handle on politics.

Garman was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2001 to fill the void created by Justice Ben Miller’s retirement. In her campaign to win a 10-year term to the position in 2002, Garman faced a primary and general election challenger from the 4th Appellate District.

While traveling the district — an east-west statewide swath of more than 17,000 square miles roughly cut in half by Highway 72 with Livingston County at its northernmost point and Jersey County its farthest south — she drove more than 150,000 miles.

All that driving, not to mention the TV advertisements and other campaigning initiatives, requires a lot of money.

The 2002 contest between Garman and then-Appellate Justice Sue Myerscough (now a federal judge in the Central District of Illinois) featured general election spending in excess of $1.4 million, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a research group. At the time, it was a record amount of spending for a general judicial election.

The amount of cash flowing into campaigns for the bench is something she’s still bothered by.

“I think there is reason to be concerned,” Garman said. “I think our system could be served by a truly meritorious selection process. And I would not discourage the legislature from considering different alternatives about judicial selection.”

And what about the possible perception that campaign funding can influence judicial logic?

“I think politics plays no role in any of the issues that we have before us,” Garman said. “If a legislative challenge goes up or down, (it’s) based upon whether it meets the standards of our constitution. And I think our court will analyze it that way. I know from time to time that there is speculation about the party split on the court. That is not an issue with the court.”

Garman said she did not have a fully formed view of how a merit selection system would work, but stressed it should not involve judges selected by the executive branch.

Any system she would back would achieve a simple goal. It also would echo an idea her father once endorsed.

“I just know,” she said, “we want to get to the system where the people with the most merit get the job.”