Chief Justice Rita Garman tells her story at Joliet Rotary Club
Published: Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014
By: Lauren Leone-Cross
JOLIET – Rita B. Garman was traveling through Will County on Christmas Eve more than 40 years ago when she heard WGN radio announce that “a woman” had been appointed as a judge in downstate Illinois.
“And I knew who that was,” Garman recalled Tuesday to a room full of Joliet Rotary Club members at Hollywood Casino.
Garman, who was sworn in last year as the first woman chief justice for the Illinois Supreme Court, explained Tuesday how she first entered the state’s court system in 1973 as an associate judge in Danville. Her 40-year-career led her through virtually every possible position in the judiciary.
Garman’s  family ties to Joliet brought her to the Rotary Club meeting. She was invited to speak by her brother-in-law and Rotarian Frank Simmons of Joliet.
Garman touched upon a number of topics, from the inner workings of the state’s Supreme Court to the hostility she faced from her male counterparts in the 1960s as an aspiring lawyer at the University of Iowa College of Law.
“[They’d asked] ‘What’s a girl like you doing something like this? What are we going to do with you? Can you type? Can you make coffee?’ ” said Garman. “[The questions were] just incredulous.”
But those comments didn’t phrase her, she said.
Bret Mitchell, president of the Joliet Rotary Club, said Garman “has such an interesting story.” It’s the first time in the club’s history, as far as he can remember, that they’ve had a state’s chief judge serve as a keynote speaker.
A number of area judges, including Will County Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt, attended Tuesday’s event for Garman’s appearance. He said he was honored to hear Garman speak at the meeting.
He said Garman “hit the nail on the head” when she said how all the “heavy lifting” happens at the circuit court level – where thousands of traffic, divorce and misdemeanors are handled. Schoenstedt was quick to note Garman’s characterization is all the more reason the county needs a new courthouse.
“The Supreme Court can never hear a case until it’s come through a trial or lower level court at some point,” Schoenstedt said. “We have to have a court system, including the physical facility, to handle all these files.”
Will County isn’t the only courthouse in the state that’s been in need of repairs, though.
Garman told Rotary Club members about the major renovations that recently finished up at the century-old Illinois Supreme Court building in Springfield. From 2011 when she was sworn in until this year, she, and fellow justices Mary Jane Theis and Anne M. Burke, didn’t have their own bathroom separate from the men, she said.
But, that hardly phased her, because back in law school, the women’s room was simply a renamed men’s bathroom, she said.
“So the ladies, and there were very few of us, we tried to improve the atmosphere by putting flowers in the urinals,” Garman joked, prompting laughter from the crowd. “But the dean didn’t have much of sense of humor and found out.”
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