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Carla Barnes Becomes First Black Woman On 11th Circuit Bench

Carla Barnes
McLean County Public Defender Carla Barnes has been appointed to the 11th Judicial Circuit vacancy left by Judge Scott Drazewski's retirement. Barnes is the first Black woman to serve on the bench in the circuit.

McLean County Public Defender Carla Barnes has been appointed as the first Black woman to serve as a circuit judge in Illinois’ 11th Judicial Circuit.

Barnes fills the vacancy created by Judge Scott Drazewski’s recent retirement. It’s her second attempt at being appointed to the bench in the circuit that covers McLean, Ford, Livingston, Logan, and Woodford counties.

“I started with the public defense's office 19 years ago. I have enjoyed serving our clients as I worked my way up from traffic court to major felonies. During my six years as chief public defender, I've always said I have the best job in the county,” Barnes said.

On her appointment as a circuit judge, Barnes said, “I'm honored to have been chosen as the first African American female attorney to serve the 11th Judicial Circuit in this capacity. I am honored and proud to hold those titles.”

The list of applicants also included female associate judges Sarah Duffy and Amy McFarland, along with attorney Danielle Kays. Male candidates were associate judge William Workman and Scott Kording and lawyers Joseph Foley and Timothy Bass. The candidates were screened by a committee of three lawyers and four nonlawyers appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Barnes’ appointment narrowed the gender gap of the 11th Judicial Circuit to seven male judges and three female judges. Men also outnumber women in associate judge positions by 8-3, despite women making up more than half the population in the five-county area.

The roster of attorneys who are members of the McLean County Bar Association includes 162 men and 85 women, meaning the pool of area male lawyers outnumbers their female colleagues 2 to 1.

Only one of Illinois’ 23 circuit courts has no female associate judges. That’s the 9th Judicial Circuit that covers Fulton, Hancock, Henderson, Knox, McDonough, and Warren counties. Meanwhile, the 6th Judicial Circuit has no female circuit judges, but does have three female associate judges.

Just four circuits have near equal numbers of male and female associate judges—although in each of those circuits, men outnumber women by one.

Only in Cook County do female circuit judges outnumber male judges, by a ratio of 129-113. That trend reverses for associate judges: there are 86 men and 49 women.

Judges in a courtroom
Credit Staff / WGLT
Judges at the swearing-in ceremony for Scott Kording in 2019.

Numbers improve somewhat in Illinois Appellate Courts. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Appellate Courts all have near equal numbers of men and women. The same cannot be said for the 4th and 5th Appellate Courts.

That Illinois Supreme Court boasts a near equal breakdown, as well. The high court is composed of four men and three women, with a woman, Anne M. Burke, currently holding the title of chief justice.

Why judicial diversity matters

Illinois is far from an outlier when it comes to issues of judicial diversity. Meghan Leonard, associate professor of politics and government at Illinois State University, said it’s a problem through virtually all courts at the state and federal levels.

In many ways, she said, it’s rooted in historical inequity.

“It wasn't until more recently that we had women going to law school in equal numbers,” Leonard said. “Judges tend to be later in their careers. It's going to take some time for those numbers to catch up, but we should be getting there soon.”

But Leonard said there’s nothing dictating that judges must be later in their careers, nor is there a requirement they come from a prosecutorial background, which they overwhelmingly do.

Leonard said there are different gatekeepers controlling the makeup of the bench, depending on whether the position is appointed or elected. Illinois’ Supreme, Appellate, and Circuit Court judges are elected, while associate judges in each circuit are appointed. In the event of a midterm vacancy, the Illinois Supreme Court is responsible for appointing an interim judge, who then has to run in the next partisan election.

In any scenario, Leonard said, there are people in power making a choice.

“What we need is (for) those who are in charge—whether it's those who are in charge of parties and putting people on ballots, or those who are in charge of nominating—to really buy into and accept the idea that judicial diversity is really important,” Leonard said.

Leonard said male and female judges don’t inherently reach different verdicts on the bench, nor do Black judges and white judges. Instead, she said, rulings align more with their personal ideology and approach to law.

“We saw this play out with a discussion over the differences between, say, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Amy Coney Barrett,” Leonard said. “Both of them meet that mark of ‘descriptive representation.’ But whether they are substantively representing women in the country is sort of up for debate.”

"We talk about how we want jurors to look like the community. Well, our judges ought to look like our community as well."

Still, Leonard said, having a bench that more closely reflects the public goes a long way toward helping plaintiffs and defendants accept the court’s decision and feel they’re getting a fair shake.

The same is true when defendants know a judge once fought for people like them, Leonard said.

“We still have this sort of want to be a ‘tough on crime’ society, but we're starting to see that change, with some movements towards (things like) ending cash bail,” Leonard said. “In thinking about criminal justice reform, all of that is not going to be as effective if we don't have public defenders, who are now the judges who would be carrying out these changes.”

Linda Foster, president of the local branch of the NAACP, applauded the appointment of Barnes to the 11th Judicial Circuit bench, but noted that the longstanding absence of a Black jurist among those serving the five-county circuit cannot be overlooked.

“We talk about how we want jurors to look like the community. Well, our judges ought to look like our community as well,” said Foster.

Barnes’ appointment will offer a sense of belonging and understanding to Black people involved in the court system, she said.

“When defendants walk into a courtroom and see lawyers and judges who look like them, it brings a different environment and background,” said Foster. “We shouldn’t feel that we don’t have a chance. This is what the thoughts and feelings are today.”

Diversity also matters for people involved in family and civil law cases, said Kathleen Kraft, a Bloomington attorney with Kraft, Wood & Kelly LLC.

Divorces can be lengthy and brutal, with children frequently caught in the crossfire. Having a resolution that both sides view as fair and equitable can make the difference between lasting peace and lingering strife, said Kraft.

“The perception of justice is as important as actual justice for the defendant. In family law, if you don’t perceive you’ve gotten a fair shake, we don’t rest. The battle goes on,” said Kraft.

According to Kraft, the life experiences a judge brings to the bench may enhance their understanding of the issues that come before them.

For example, a judge who is divorced or is the product of divorced parents has firsthand knowledge of what is involved in resolving marital disputes.

In her nearly three decades as an attorney, Kraft has seen “an evolution of parenting time allocations,” as court-approved visitation policies for children with their parents expanded to meet the needs of modern families.

It may take time for societal changes to make their way into the courtroom, but when it happens, the shift in thinking can change people’s lives, said Kraft.

It took time, for example, for judges to consider same-sex couples suitable adoptive parents, a move Kraft attributes to a philosophically diverse judiciary.

“Now it’s a non-issue, which is delightful,” said Kraft.

Last year, the Illinois Illinois Supreme Court became one of the first in the nation to establish a position dedicated to cultivating and coordinating diversity and inclusion efforts. The move came after widespread civil unrest over police killings of Black Americans and the legal fallout.

Deanie Brown took over as chief diversity and inclusion officer in November. She said the goal of her office of one is embedded in the name.

“Diversity and inclusion are both actionable terms and signs of commitment, and my goal is to promote the underlying ideals in such a way that we think of diversity, equity, and inclusion not as special circumstances but as foundational and active throughout our deliberative actions,” Brown said.

She said that means meeting regularly with colleagues, as well as listening to the public and to employees in the judicial system. It also means reviewing existing practices and programs and recommending and advising for progress, she said.

Brown said they are considering approaches for deepening data collection outside existing state requirements for employees not serving as judges.

Women in the 11th circuit

In addition to being the first Black woman to serve as a circuit judge, Barnes is only the sixth woman to sit on the bench.

Drazewski described a “pecking order” that may exist among judicial candidates, a process that requires candidates to apply multiple times before they are selected as associates. Having support from family, colleagues, and community members bolsters an attorney’s chances of success, said Drazewski, who applied several times before being chosen.

Drazewski noted that the increase in the number of female law school graduates has widened the pool of women who may be candidates for judgeships.

“So now there’s a broader field and gender is not really an issue for good reason, because we have qualified lawyers, regardless of gender,” he said.

In some cases, circuit judges have as many as 20 candidates to consider for an associate position, said Drazewski. The field of four or five finalists is scrutinized in terms of their background. Many factors are considered, including the diversity an attorney may bring to the bench, he said, adding, “But I don’t think we need to force diversity at the expense of qualifications to sit as a judge.” 

When Elizabeth Robb was appointed a judge in 1993, her appointment was newsworthy as she became the first woman to wear a robe in the 11th Judicial Circuit.

Twenty-one years later when Robb retired as the first woman to serve as chief judge of the circuit, three more women--Jennifer Bauknecht, Rebecca Foley and Lee Ann Hill--were among 20 judges serving the five-county circuit. Since then, Hill has retired and associate judges Duffy and McFarland were named.

The make-up of the nation’s court system from the U.S. Supreme Court to the federal and state judiciaries is largely white and male, with women and minorities disproportionately represented at all levels in comparison to the population.

The efforts to bring meaningful diversity to the judiciary is a slow process, said Robb.

“It is too slow in my view. And I fear we are at a plateau. I think there was more of a push when it was more novel. I hope it’s just a plateau because it’s really important to increase the diversity of the judiciary,” she said.

The roadblocks that stall the advancement of women are the same barriers that block women from many career opportunities, according to Robb, noting the financial challenges of law school and the burden some women face if they have a family can be insurmountable.

Minority lawyers may face an even steeper climb.

“You’ve got to have people who are willing to help you and advance you as an individual, and you’re likely to go to someone who looks like you, to ask that person to be a mentor,” said Robb.

Lawyers of other ethnicities and genders are willing to mentor women and minorities, Robb noted, but the smaller pool of minority attorneys shrinks the support available to new lawyers.

Circuit judges contribute to the level of diversity through the selection of associate judges. Robb recalls diversity being a topic during deliberations on new members of the bench.

“Those discussions were had,” said Robb.

The professional and life experiences a lawyer brings to the bench may influence their decisions. Personal backgrounds also steer a judge toward certain projects. In Robb’s case, her background in family and non-for-profit law led her spearhead efforts to establish mental health and drug court programs.

A judicial conference session on the disproportionate contact minority youth have with police caused Robb to dig into the numbers of minority youth cycling through the local court system.

The finding: “We were bringing in a disproportionate number of black, mainly young men into our court,” Robb said. “I saw so many young men with promise.”

The appointment of the county’s first African American public defender to the bench brings long-awaited diversity, according to the NAACP and other advocates for a broader representation of minorities at all levels of the judiciary.

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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.
Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.