SPRINGFIELD – Justice Rita Garman, who has served longer on the bench in Illinois than all but one sitting judge, was named Thursday as the next chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.
The 69-year-old Danville Republican, who said male professors admonished her for attending law school only to find a husband and who began her career as a $90-a-week attorney for the Vermilion County Legal Aid Society, will replace Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat whose term ends Oct. 25.
A judge since 1974, Garman was unanimously elected by her colleagues on the seven-member court. She will become the first of the state's top jurists to serve in virtually every judicial capacity on circuit, appellate and Supreme courts.
In a news release, Garman said she will continue Kilbride's technology initiatives to keep the public better informed and said, "I 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."
Kilbride was known for pushing technological advances in the court system, including a pilot project allowing cameras in Illinois trial courtrooms.
Garman, whose nearly four-decade judicial tenure is eclipsed only by the 48 years served by Madison County Circuit Judge Andreas Matoesian, has focused on the needs of children by urging the creation of the Special Committee on Child Custody Issues to ensure that custody cases first consider the well-being of children involved.
The court, on which Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-3, elects chief justices for three-year terms and typically chooses the next senior justice who has not previously served in the top spot, regardless of politics.
Bill Black, a Danville Republican who formerly served in the GOP leadership in the Illinois House, said Garman is known for her "quiet, studious" manner, absence of ego and great sense of humor.
"She's not a headline-grabber," Black said. "She's a very, very thoughtful person."
When Garman was appointed in 2001 to fill a vacancy, she joined Chief Justice Mary Ann McMorrow, the high court's first female chief, who died in February at age 83. Garman was elected to a 10-year term in 2002 and was retained in 2012.
Garman said she grew up knowing she wanted to be a lawyer and was encouraged by her late parents. But as one of five women in a class of 100, she was sometimes chided by University of Iowa College of Law professors who thought she was taking up space that should go to a man.
"I was told, 'You know you'll never practice law. You're just here to catch a husband,'" Garman recalled.