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Retiring chief justice Rita Garman honored as Illinois' longest-serving judge at Bloomington reception

Susan Schafer and Rita Garman
Edith Brady-Lunny
Retired Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman, right, talks with McLean County Board member Susan Schafer.

Retiring Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman and her replacement, Justice Lisa Holder White, were honored for their service Wednesday by lawyers, judges and court personnel from the 11th Judicial Circuit.

In her 50-plus years in the legal profession, Garman broke several records. She was the first woman to serve as a judge in the 5th Judicial Circuit as well as the first female chosen for the Fourth District Appellate Court. In 2001, she was named to the Illinois Supreme Court and was chief justice from 2013-2016.

In her remarks to a large audience at the McLean County Law and Justice Center in Bloomington, Garman said a career in law was a teenage ambition.

"I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was probably 15 years old,” said Garman, the state’s longest-serving judge before her retirement.

Garman praised the 11th circuit for its progressive approach to resolving issues, with the COVID-19 crisis as one example.

Ron Lewis and Lisa Holder White
Edith Brady-Lunny
Supreme Court Justice Lisa Holder White talks with McLean County Public Defender Ron Lewis.

“When we were devastated by the COVID pandemic, this is one circuit that stepped forward with creative ideas about how we could still perform our duties and serve the public in an exemplary way,” she said.

Garman said she intends to spend time with her three young grandchildren who live in Iowa. Sporting events and a slower pace will be part of her time away from the court, she said.

Judge Carla Barnes, the first Black judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit, told the crowd in her introduction of White that the new Supreme Court justice was one of the first to contact her after she was named to the local position. White also broke records with her advancement as a Black female judge in the 6th Judicial Circuit, the Fourth District Appellate Court and the Supreme Court, Barnes noted.

White told reporters she did not expect to become a state Supreme Court justice. Her goal, she said, “was to be a lawyer.” In addition to her legal skills and knowledge, White said she brings her life experiences to the court.

“I like the fact that I bring many things to the court,” said White, adding that she is “a mother, wife and daughter.”

Both judges said they are optimistic about the number of women who are choosing law as a profession. Garman noted that her law school class had eight female students whose presence was not welcomed by some male professors.

Among the Supreme Court’s duties is the operation of Illinois courts, a task that is expected to become more complicated in January with the rollout of sweeping changes to the state’s cash bail rules. The Supreme Court was unsuccessful in securing a delay in implementation of the new law, said Garman. A series of educational sessions sponsored by the court for attorneys, judges and the public are designed to answer questions about how the new system will work.

White said she has started making the rounds of the 41 counties in the Fourth District, meeting with judges and the legal communities she will serve. She also will continue her work with training programs for judges.

“We need people to know that they're coming before a judge who is knowledgeable, skillful and also compassionate and understanding. So anything we can do to equip judges with the tools they need to be the type of judge they would like to appear in front of, then we should do that,” said White.

Garman reminded attorneys that the opportunity to practice law is a privilege.

“We have an opportunity to help people at a time when they’re really having trouble in their lives. And they really need some help and guidance. We can be the beacon of light and hope for people in some pretty desperate situations,” said the retiring jurist.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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