Eckert's retirement could leave door open for Republican interim

By Amelia Flood | Oct 1, 2009



St. Clair County Circuit Judge Annette Eckert's retirement announcement this week could potentially usher in a Republican interim judge in a county dominated by Democratic judges.

Eckert, a Democrat, was retained last year to a second six-year term. On Wednesday she said she would retire in November 2010.

Her unexpired term would be filled by the Illinois Supreme Court, which would appoint an interim circuit judge based on the recommendation of Justice Lloyd Karmeier, a Republican.

According to Joseph Tybor, press secretary for the Supreme Court, the length that interim replacement would serve would depend on when exactly Eckert leaves the bench and on the timing of the nearest election cycle to her retirement.

On the same day Eckert announced her retirement, Swansea attorney Judy Cates said she would seek Eckert's seat. When reached for comment Thursday, Cates said that she decided to run because "it's important to maintain diversity on the bench."

"I think it's important that the next person in this position is not politically motivated but will dispense justice for all, not just a few," Cates said. "And I think I'm well qualified."

Cates ran for a Fifth District appellate judgeship last year but lost to fellow Democrat Jim Wexstten in the primary. She is an adjunct professor at Washington University's School of Law and St. Louis University's School of Law and has been honored as a Top Lawyer by various law groups.

Cates has primarily represented plaintiffs in class actions and other litigation. She also serves as a mediator.

St. Clair County Circuit Judge Milton Wharton called Eckert, the first woman to serve as a circuit judge in St. Clair, "innovative."

"I feel honored to have served with her," Wharton said.

Messages were left for Eckert seeking comment Wednesday and Thursday. They were not returned as of press time.

Eckert's planned retirement would come after 20 years on the bench. During her tenure she served in family court and in the circuit's criminal court. She spearheaded a number of judicial programs in the Twentieth Circuit including its Children First program and its Drug Court.

Wharton said he learned of Eckert's retirement this week, although he knew she had been contemplating it.

He said colleagues viewed Eckert as "someone who joins people together instead of being divisive."

He praised Eckert's empathy, calling her "someone who gives an ear to anyone who enters her courtroom."

While Wharton praised Eckert's accomplishments, he cited her battle with cancer as something that truly impressed him.

"I had a chance to see how she fought, how she would not give in to the pain," Wharton said, "how she maintained a semblance of normalcy on the bench and in her personal life."

Wharton said he was not aware of any other potential candidates for the seat. He said he looked forward to race and was hopeful that the seat could possibly go to another woman.

"I'm certain there is no shortage of qualified women who would be an asset to this circuit," Wharton said.

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