Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman will take over the reins of the high court next month as the second woman in state history to serve as chief justice.
Chosen unanimously by her fellow colleagues, Garman will succeed Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride and begin her three-year term as the 119th chief justice on Oct. 26, the Supreme Court announced today.
"I am honored and humbled to have been chosen by my colleagues to serve as Chief Justice," Garman said in the court’s news release. "I welcome the challenges and the responsibility that go with the role of Chief Justice because I know that I can count on the support of my colleagues at all levels of the judiciary and the members of the Illinois bar."
The court’s release states that Garman will be the second woman to serve as chief justice – the first was the late Mary Ann McMorrow in 2002 – and the first chief justice who has “served in virtually every judicial capacity.”
Garman joined the judiciary at the age of 30 in 1974 as an associate judge in Danville. She went on to become a circuit judge, presiding circuit judge, appellate court justice and presiding appellate court justice before being appointed to the Supreme Court in 2001.
She has served in the judiciary longer than all but one of the state’s 950-plus judges and is the longest serving female judge in the state, according to the court’s release that notes she will celebrate her 40th anniversary as a judge in January.
Kilbride said in the release that he is privileged to have Garman as his successor.
"I have served with Rita Garman for nearly my entire tenure on the Illinois Supreme Court," he said. "We have not only worked together as colleagues, but she has become a dear friend. She has an extraordinary combination of intellect, temperament, and experience that will serve well our Court, our judiciary and our state.
Garman was appointed to the Supreme Court two months after Kilbride and Justice Robert Thomas were sworn in following their elections.
Thomas said that "Rita will make an outstanding Chief Justice. She is smart, she is passionate about the cause of justice, and she is a natural leader. This court will thrive under her leadership."
In the court’s release, Garman said she has worked with and learned from those who have served before her, not only Kilbride and Thomas, but Justice Charles Freeman, McMorrow, the late Moses Harrison and retired justices Tom Fitzgerald and Ben Miller.
“All have been friends,” she said. “I have learned much, and will take much, from their example as I assume this new role, and ensure that the Court truly serves the people of the State of Illinois.”
In her soon-to-be-new role as chief justice, Garman said will support the increased use of technology in the state’s courthouses, one of several initiatives Kilbride pushed during his term as the court’s top justice.
Over the past three years, Kilbride led the court’s efforts to enhance the use of electronic filing in the state’s courts, as well as a pilot project to allow cameras in the courtrooms. He also worked to establish the Commission of Access to Justice, among other initiatives.
In addition to continuing Kilbride’s efforts, Garman said she “will place particular emphasis on judicial education because the public is best served by judges whose knowledge is current and wide-ranging.”
"And I will do all that I can to encourage civility and ethical conduct among the members of the bench and bar because we all serve the public best when we put our egos aside and concentrate on doing the work of the people,” she added.
During her time on the state high court, Garman has participated in hundreds of opinions and recommended the creation of the Special Committee on Child Custody Issues.
She currently serves as the court’s liaison to that committee, as well as to the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges, the Committee on Judicial Performance Evaluation and the Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.
Garman earned her law degree from the University of Iowa College of Law, where she was one of five women in her class of 100, according to the court’s release.
“I was told: ‘You know you’ll never practice law. You’re just here to catch a husband,” she said in the release.
She began her legal career making $90 a week at the Vermilion County Legal Aid Society and prior to joining the judiciary, worked as an assistant state’s attorney in Vermilion County and in private practice in Danville.
Garman and her husband, Gill, an attorney in Danville, have two children and three grandchildren.