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Theiss sworn in as chief justice says partisanship doesn’t matter on state Supreme Court | News

The grandchildren of Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis display her portrait Monday during a public ceremony to swear her in as chief justice. Tice is pictured sitting in the Supreme Court’s courtroom at the far right of the photo, laughing with Republican Justice Michael Burke.

SPRINGFIELD — Mary Jane Theis was sworn in as chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court Monday in a public ceremony, becoming the fourth woman to hold the gavel since the court’s inception in 1818.

By next month, a Democrat will be presiding over a historic new court as women hold a 5-2 majority for the first time in Illinois history.

Democrats will also have a 5-2 majority on the court next month, an expansion of party power from the current 4-3 split after Democrats won two judicial races in the 2nd and 3rd Districts in last week’s election.

But the bipartisan message Monday during a swearing-in ceremony at the Springfield Superior Courthouse was unifying: The rule of law, not partisan politics, guides how judges approach their work on the bench.

“We are in a period of crisis,” Theis said to about 60 to 70 people in the Supreme Court chamber. “We know that trust in institutions in general is falling. We know that polls today show that the Supreme Court of the United States has the lowest approval rating since the poll began.

“Here in Illinois, we just went through a tough election. … A time when Illinoisans were told over and over again that the judiciary was just another place for partisan politics, that what we were doing was a game. I will tell you that this is not my experience. It’s not true.”

In that election, the airwaves were filled with reports of real or perceived Republican positions on abortion and alleged Democratic involvement in party-wide corruption.

Retired Judge Rita Garman, a Danville Republican, was one of three speakers at Theis’ swearing-in ceremony, noting the longtime friendship they shared during their time on the court. Garman served on the Supreme Court from 2001 until her retirement in July, and Tice served since 2010.

Garman said she has always appreciated Theis’s level of research in her opinions and analysis. And she befriended a fellow judge at the Supreme Court residence in Springfield, where judges stay when they come to town for deliberations.

“She was always thoughtful and willing to give input and suggestions,” Garman said. “I can assure you that she is committed to the rule of law.”

Harmon was succeeded by Lisa Holder White, the first black woman to serve on the state Supreme Court.

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Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis is sworn in by outgoing Chief Justice Ann M. Burke.

Justice Ann M. Burke, who immediately preceded Theis as Chief Justice, presided over the swearing in of the new Chief Justice. Burke herself will retire at the end of the month, and will be succeeded by Court of Appeals Judge Joy W. Cunningham, who will serve as second judge. A black woman sits on the high court.

“When it came to our court, in 2012, Justice Theis said, ‘I am proud of the nonpartisan spirit of our court,'” Burke said as he opened the ceremony. “I believe that this phrase is the most important way to express that we all feel our responsibility on the court. The important questions before us are decided by law and without regard to party, personality or prejudice.’

Theiss was officially sworn in on Oct. 26, but the ceremony took place Monday when the justices returned to Springfield for their regular term.

She said her judicial philosophy stems from fair consideration of every argument before the court.

“The number one, most important indicator of whether people would agree with what happens to them in court is whether they believed they were treated fairly,” she said. “Perceptions of justice are what connect our communities, our judiciary, the rule of law and our democracy.”

Other speakers at the ceremony included Judge Timothy Evans, chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, and Theis’ son, John C. Theis, an attorney with Riley, Safer, Holmes & Cancila LLP in Chicago.

He echoed his mother’s belief that everyone should get a “fair shake” and shared anecdotes about her career, beginning with the July 1, 1983, appearance of the current chief justice on the local news in a judge’s robe.

“The real news was about a judge who was in a wheelchair,” he said. “But for two short seconds in that clip, my mom comes in from the right and stands with the judges who were there. I must have watched that video 100 times as a kid before the tape started to fade.”

Mary Jane Tice 3

Another memory he shared was learning that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer. He said he was young but knew she wouldn’t survive.

“And the second thing, even I knew at the time, even if she had survived and gotten treatment, her legal career would probably have been ruined,” he said. “I was wrong. She beat cancer twice and her career turned out just fine.”

Tice is from the 1st Judicial Circuit, which covers Cook County and elects three of the court’s seven judges. She was elected to the post through the court’s standard chief justice appointment process, which gives the post to the most senior judge not yet holding it.

She was born in 1949 in Chicago, graduated from Loyola University in 1971 and received her law degree from the University of San Francisco School of Law in 1974. During last week’s election, she was left for another 10-year term.

Her duties as presiding judge will include serving as the court’s chief administrative officer, overseeing more than 900 judges in the state court system. The Chief Justice also selects the Supreme Court’s agenda items, oversees all Supreme Court committee appointments, chairs the executive committee of the Illinois Judicial Conference, and submits the court’s budget request to the legislature.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed in more than 400 newspapers across the state and hundreds of radio and television stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.


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