DANVILLE — Rita B. Garman didn't set out to be a trailblazer. She was just doing what she enjoyed as she pursued an education and career in the law.
But on Monday, colleagues recognized Garman's role in paving the way for other female attorneys and jurists as she became the Illinois Supreme Court's 119th — and second female — chief justice.
Garman, 69, of Danville, officially began her three-year term as the chief administrative officer of the Illinois judicial system on Saturday. She was installed on Monday at a ceremony at the Vermilion County Courthouse, where she started her judicial career nearly 40 years ago.
Supreme Court Justice Thomas L. Kilbride, whom Garman succeeded as chief justice, administered the oath of office to her in a courtroom packed with family and friends, other Supreme Court colleagues, current and retired jurists from Vermilion County and Illinois and local and state dignitaries.
Then Garman took the bench and looked out among her well-wishers. She called the occasion "among the most gratifying and uplifting of my life" and said sharing it with her husband, Gill; their two children, Sara Doyle and Andy Garman; and many of the people who helped shape her life and career "is really a humbling experience.
"And it gives me confidence as I undertake this new facet in my professional life. Everything I have achieved has only been because of the help, support and encouragement of others and my faith in God."
Garman went on to say that she welcomes her new responsibilities and challenges because she knows she will have the continued support of her colleagues at all levels of the judiciary, Illinois bar members and the staff at the Office of the Illinois Courts and her Danville office.
She said she will work to ensure prompt judicial decision-making at all levels of the court system, continue to support increased use of technology in courtrooms and courthouses to better inform the public and improve transparency, and place particular emphasis on judicial education "because the public is best served by judges whose knowledge is current and wide-ranging." In addition, she said she will do all she can to encourage civility and ethical conduct among all members of the bench and bar.
With a career spanning 45 years, Garman is the second longest-serving judge in Illinois and the longest-serving female judge in the state. She is the first chief justice to have served in virtually every judicial capacity.
She is the second woman to head one of the three branches of government in the state, after the late Chief Justice Mary Ann McMorrow, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court and Garman's friend and colleague.
Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke said Garman didn't have an easy start. After earning a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Illinois, where she was a top 10 graduate and named to the Bronze Tablet, Garman — who became interested in a law career in high school — enrolled at the University of Iowa College of Law.
"That decision was met with skepticism and ridicule," said Burke, one of three colleagues who spoke at the ceremony.
Garman was one of five women in her law school class of 100. She was chastised by professors for "taking a space that could've been filled by a man. She was told, 'You know, you'll never practice law. You're just here to catch a husband,'" Burke said, prompting laughter from the audience.
But Garman graduated with high honors in 1968 and went on to break other barriers, including becoming the first female circuit judge in the Fifth Judicial Circuit and first female judge on the Fourth District Appellate Court. Today, Burke said, nearly half of all law school graduates are women.
She added that in 2010, history was made when Justice Mary Jane Theis was appointed to the Supreme Court, making it the first time three of the seven-member panel were women.
Theis shared highlights of Garman's long and distinguished career, which she started at the Vermilion County Legal Aid Society. Garman later served as Vermilion County assistant state's attorney then worked in private practice, before, at age 30, she was tapped as an associate judge.
For those people involved, "those cases are very important to their lives," Theis said, adding that Garman recognized that and worked hard and diligently to get them resolved in a fair and timely manner. "Those cases continue to influence and shape her. She never treats a case as a stack of papers. Each case is about our neighbors, who ask the court to bring them from a place of crisis to a place of peace."
Garman was elected a circuit judge in the Fifth Judicial Circuit in 1986 and served as Vermilion County's presiding judge from 1987 to 1998. She was assigned to the Illinois Appellate Court, Fourth District, in 1998 and elected to the appellate court the next year.
She was appointed to the Supreme Court on Feb. 1, 2001, to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of former Chief Justice Ben Miller, was elected for a 10-year term in 2002 and was retained for a second term in 2012.
As a high court justice, she has written and participated in hundreds of opinions. "She is always so well prepared," Theis said of Garman, adding lawyers know to be ready for her questions. "Every time, she nails the case."
Garman recommended establishing the Special Committee on Child Custody Issues to ensure that the best interest of children is the prime focus of all custody cases and that all child custody proceedings be scheduled and heard on an expedited basis. She still serves as the Supreme Court liaison to the committee.
She also serves as the Supreme Court liaison to the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges, the Committee on Judicial Performance Evaluation and the Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.
Burke — who said she got to know Garman well during their many power walks around Springfield and power shopping sprees at the mall — called her colleague a woman of strong faith in God and family values. Supreme Court Justice Robert Thomas agreed and said she has been governed both on and off the bench by her "solid and consistent character" and "deep faith and integrity."
"Rita is simply one of the best judges I've had the pleasure to work with," Thomas said, adding he has the utmost confidence in her as she takes on her new role. "She knows what she believes in, and she is never afraid to assert her position even when it is unpopular. She is always willing to hear the other side and keep an open mind and change her mind if she believes it is right."
Garman said her career advancement wasn't carefully calcuated. Instead, it was the result of hard work, good timing and a willingness to take on new challenges that were presented to her. While she faced discrimination in law school, she said she was welcomed in Danville. She also said she owes much to her parents, who supported her career goals; her many mentors; and the women that came before her.
"If I've helped to pave the way for women, it is my payment that I owe to past generations."