When Carla Barnes closed a black robe around her shoulders for the first time on Thursday, she marked history as the first Black judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit.
An audience of friends, family and colleagues watched the swearing-in ceremony in Courtroom 5A while many others followed COVID-19 protocols by joining a Zoom option for the celebration.
Barnes was selected by the Illinois Supreme Court in January to replace retiring circuit judge Scott Drazewski.
The judiciary seemed an uphill and unlikely destination, Barnes noted in her remarks.
Raised in Chicago Heights by a single mother who struggled with mental illness, parenting responsibilities for Carla fell to her older sister, Sharon. When Sharon started classes at Illinois State University, she smuggled her sister, then 11, into her dorm where they lived until they moved into an apartment.
“I know it couldn’t have been easy and I know it wasn’t fair,” Barnes told her sister, who attended the ceremony with Barnes’ two brothers and her three children. A strong work ethic and the value of education were important to Barnes’ mother.
“She taught us not to become our circumstances and set the world on fire,” the new judge said of her mother.
When she begins her first assignment in Livingston County, Barnes pledged to give each litigant her full attention.
“Win or lose, they are going to know that I was fair,” she said.
Chief Judge Mark Fellheimer recognized the fact that Barnes’ ceremony took place during Black History Month. The selection of Barnes as the first Black judge for the circuit will encourage other minority lawyers to consider the possibility of applying for a judgeship, said Fellheimer.
A strong sense of empathy and compassion for others are trademarks Barnes brings to the bench, said Fourth District Appellate Judge James Knecht, along with “grace and gusto.”
Linda Foster, president of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP, said “Carla comes from a humble background which taught her about giving and forgiving,” adding Barnes is the first Black judge in the circuit “but not the last.”
Barnes was the first Black public defender in McLean County. She joins four other female judges in the circuit that includes McLean, Livingston, Logan, Ford and Woodford counties.
Public defender Marinna Metoyer was one of the minority prosecutors who served with Barnes before she also became a defense lawyer. Barnes “is passionate about the law, serving others and making the world a better place,” said Metoyer.
Barnes also attended ISU and went on to law school. She spent a year as a prosecutor in McLean County--one of three minority women hired by former state’s attorney Charles Reynard--before moving to the public defender’s office. In 2014, she was named chief public defender.
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