CNI justice burke1

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke hears oral arguments during a public session on the campus of Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey.

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A trailblazer in her own right, ANNE BURKE was appointed to a seat on Illinois’ highest court in 2006.

And not just any seat. Burke was chosen to succeed the retiring Mary Ann McMorrow, who’d faced one obstacle after another en route to becoming the first woman to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court in its 173-year history.

“She was the only woman in her law school class in the ’50s,” Burke says. “She was the first woman to try a felony murder trial. She was preparing for an argument in the Illinois Supreme Court, and her boss asked her what she was doing — she was in the state’s attorney’s office — and she says, ‘Well I’m getting ready for oral argument.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, women do not argue in the Supreme Court.’”

Last month, Burke was appointed the 121st chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, a title previously held by only two women — McMorrow and Danville’s Rita Garman. Burke’s election to the head of the court by her colleagues makes her the first chief justice in almost a decade from Cook County.

Below is a interview, edited for length and clarity, that Capitol News Illinois’ Rebecca Anzel conducted with Burke in the library of the Supreme Court in Springfield.

While Burke touched on several topics, she declined to comment when asked about the federal indictment of her husband, Chicago Alderman Ed Burke,on racketeering and bribery charges.

You’ve done so many things — teaching, co-founding the Special Olympics in Chicago, serving on the board of admission to the Illinois Bar. What do you bring to this position that perhaps some of your predecessors might not have?

Well, because I was a gym teacher and college dropout — literally, I didn’t go back to college until after I was married and had three children — my real love was children and sports, athletics and the arts. And it still is.

So I think my foundation as a gym teacher — even though I was an advocate for children in the gym, I was an advocate for children as a teacher and I was an advocate for vulnerable people in society as a lawyer — what I bring with me with all that is the camp-counselor/gym-teacher ideas.

I’m a gatherer. I’m a convener of people and not doing it necessarily myself but having everybody else involved — every team member is important, not one over the other. And I think that’s exactly the way our court has functioned, which is not because of me necessarily, but just by the nature of everybody is a Supreme Court judge. We don’t have one extra vote because you’re chief — you just have to do the agenda and open court and some other things. But outside of that, we’re equal. And that’s, I think, the team approach that I’ve taken my whole life.

So hopefully, I can consider that as something that I do in my everyday life on the court with committees and other kinds of activities that we participate in.

You’re also no stranger to being the first woman appointed to something. You were the first woman appointed to the Illinois Court of Claims. And this is a conversation we could be having in a number of other industries. The first woman was named to be Capitol architect not that long ago. Illinois has never had a female governor. There are probably young girls sitting somewhere who look to you as a trailblazer and a role model. Do you ever think about that?

I do. I didn’t go to law school until I had four children under 10. People should go when they feel like it. But on the other hand, I always try to tell young people, don’t dream about being over there. Dream about enjoying what you’re doing today.

Everything I’ve done, I’ve enjoyed at that moment, and that built on to where I am today. I never had the goal to be a lawyer or a judge, or even a teacher. It just evolved that way and I enjoyed every second of it.

You might say that I wouldn’t be who I was today without having the dreams at every point in my life. The dreams were to be, enjoy what you’re doing — every second. Then you get the chance to see the windows and the doors that open up along the way. If you’re so focused ahead of yourself, you never see what’s available on either side, or who might influence you.

So that’s what I tell young people — just enjoy today. Prepare yourself, of course. Go to school — enjoy what you’re doing in school and experiment with different things. Take that risk.

Martin Luther King always said, “You never know what’s at the top of the staircase. But if you don’t take that first step, you never will.”

Part of your initiative as chief justice is going to be the listening tour, increasing access to justice in the state. Could you tell us about that?

I’ve just returned from several different conferences around the country — one on mental health and one on juvenile justice. Everybody has such a wealth of information, you can’t help but learn from that. And so I thought that perhaps it would be good for me to travel around the state and just listen to what’s going on.

The hope is the Illinois State Bar Association will be my host and they will take me to the different places and invite ... all the stakeholders in our justice system. So it will be the sheriff, it will be the clerks and it will be the judges and the lawyers. But also, anyone else who’s an integral part — public defenders, state’s attorneys — should be in the room, and I want to hear what they have to say.

There’s not so much difference between what we do in different circuits. Cook may have more people, but it isn’t necessarily that they do (anything different than in) Macon County, for sure. It’s just that there’s a volume there.

But there’s so many things that people might do just a little bit different that we can all learn from. And that’s what I want to do, is try to gather all that information, come back and look at it, and try to work with it with our Access to Justice and our new initiative for the court, and use what people have thought nobody is listening to. I want to listen to them.

Is there anything else about what you’re looking forward to, or anything about being chief justice that you want to add?

Well, as you opened with, it’s the highest honor that anybody could ever have. The fact that I am a woman, and not really an academic, and dyslexic — ‘How did I ever get here?’ is my question. How could that be?

But it did happen, and the nice thing about our court, one of the many nice things, is that we are geographically diverse, but our state constitution provides how we can have people from everywhere in the state come together and work together because we have the same interest — and that’s improving the law in Illinois and delivering justice.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation. Its mission is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.