SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Supreme Court made history last week when two newly seated members gave the bench a 5-2 majority of woman judges.
Justices Elizabeth Rochford and Mary Kay O’Brien were sworn in Monday, Dec. 5. The two Democrats were both elected to the high court in November. Justice Joy V. Cunningham, who was appointed to replace retired Justice Anne M. Burke, was sworn in on Dec. 1.
The new justices join Lisa Holder White, who was sworn in as the court’s first Black woman justice on July 7. Cunningham became the second, bringing the number of Black justices on the Supreme Court to three, also a high-water mark for the institution.
The historic court will be led by Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis, who officially assumed that title in October, following Burke and becoming the fourth woman chief in the court’s history.
She’s been on the court since 2010 and ascended to the top spot by the court’s standard process, which gives the gavel to longest-tenured justice who hasn’t yet held it.
She’ll preside over a court on which four of its seven members have been seated for less than six months.
“In my life story, I am not a trailblazer. I am not Mary Ann McMorrow, who was the first woman on our court,” Theis said in an interview with Capitol News Illinois.
McMorrow was first elected to the court in 1992.
Diversity on the bench, Theis said, is both enriching to deliberations and important from a symbolism standpoint.
“It wasn’t that long ago when Charles Freeman was the first African American on this court. He joined the court in 1990,” Theis said. “But he was the only African American up until 2018 and then Scott Neville joined this court.”
Neville remained the only Black justice until he was joined this year by Holder White and Cunningham.
“Suddenly, we’re now going to have three people (on this court) that are people of color,” Theis said. “It says something about our state and something about our court that we’ve evolved to such a place that we can have that diversity.”
While Theis said she’s invigorated by the new court and the experiences and worldviews its new members will bring to the bench, she described the challenges of the court’s turnover as “innumerable.”
There’s also another considerable shift on the court – its 4-3 Democratic majority of recent years has grown to 5-2.
Theis, however, said partisanship has no place on the high court.
“There is no partisanship, unless you want to say sports partisanship,” she said.