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Illinois’ longest serving judges

April 25, 2009

Since becoming a magistrate in 1965, 6th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge John P. Shonkwiler has served on the bench under two different Illinois constitutions and one judicial article amendment.


By John Flynn Rooney
Law Bulletin staff writer

Shonkwiler practiced law for three years under the state’s 1870 Constitution before being appointed a magistrate at age 32.

”I was happy I was able to practice under the 1870 Constitution,” Shonkwiler said.

The state’s current constitution is known as the 1970 Constitution, which took effect in July 1971.

The so-called ”blue ballot” court reorganization measure under Article 6 of the state constitution became effective in 1964.

”It changed, frankly, chaos into order,” Shonkwiler said of the 1964 amendment that unified the state’s judicial system, which consists of the supreme court, appellate courts and circuit courts.

6th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge John P. Shonkwiler has been on the bench for nearly 45 years. Photo by John C. Dixon

6th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge John P. Shonkwiler has been on the bench for nearly 45 years. Photo by John C. Dixon

The Law Bulletin interviewed Shonkwiler, along with three other judges who are among the longest-serving Illinois state court judges, according to Joseph R. Tybor, spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court.

The other three interviewees are Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita B. Garman, 5th District Appellate Justice Richard P. Goldenhersh and 1st District Appellate Justice Warren D. Wolfson. Those three judges and Shonkwiler have all served on the bench for more than 30 years.

Other judges serving since 1976 include Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Fitzgerald, Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Freeman, 1st District Appellate Justice Joseph Gordon, Cook County Circuit Judge Henry A. Budzinski and 20th Judicial Circuit Judge Milton S. Wharton.

”When I came on the bench as a magistrate [magistrates were later replaced by associate judges], I had a large room with a desk, counsel table and chairs that functioned as my courtroom,” Shonkwiler said. ”Courtroom facilities … have improved.”

He noted that when he went on the bench there was no mentoring program n place for new judges. In 1998, the Illinois Supreme Court adopted a program in which veteran judges act as mentors to new jurists for a year.

Shonkwiler served as an associate judge in 1971-72. The Supreme Court appointed Shonkwiler as a circuit court judge in 1972 and he was first elected in 1974. He became chief judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit — De Witt, Macon, Piatt, Moultrie, Douglas and Champaign counties — in 1994.

”I am in a rural county and I handle every kind of case there is,” said Shonkwiler, who is based in Monticello, located in Piatt County. ”Lately, foreclosures have come into play.”

Shonkwiler, 76, handles a full caseload and walks to work in 10 minutes.

His advice to newer judges is to listen and be patient.

”You’ve got to do your own homework on a case,” Shonkwiler added.

About 60 miles to the east of Monticello, Garman became a member of the Illinois bar in 1968. She practiced law in several positions for about five years in and around Danville, an eastern central Illinois town.

There are fewer jury trials now than there were in the 1970s, according to Garman. Domestic relations and domestic violence cases are now more prevalent, she added.

During 1974, Garman was appointed to an associate judgeship at age 30 in the 5th Judicial Circuit. She was elected to a circuit court judgeship in 1986 and joined the 4th District Appellate Court in 1995.

All of those moves, she said, were firsts: she was the first woman associate judge in the 5th Circuit, the first female circuit judge there, and the first woman to serve on the 4th District Appellate Court.

”Early in my career as a judge handling jury trials, I learned afterward from jurors they were more surprised with my age than the fact that I was a woman,” Garman said. ”I would have thought otherwise.”

In early 2001, Garman was appointed to a vacancy on the Illinois Supreme Court and elected to a 10-year term on the high court in 2002. She became the second woman to serve on the supreme court.

”I approach the day-to-day work of judging one case at a time — mindful of the deference I owe to others, the duty to be deliberate and collegial and the responsibility to exercise discretion with care,” Garman said during a panel discussion about the judicial decision-making process at Loyola University School of Law in early April.

When Garman became a judge, there were fewer than 10 women judges in Illinois, she said. In a sign of the times, there are now more than 100 women judges serving throughout the state, Garman added.

”I believe that I am the longest-sitting woman judge in Illinois at this time,” said Garman, 65.

As of Oct. 31, 2008, 34 percent of the nearly 84,000 licensed Illinois attorneys were women, according to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

Garman called the increasingly large number of women lawyers in Illinois a normal evolution.

”I think as women entered the practice of law and gained the requisite experience, those doors opened for them,” Garman said. ”Similarly in the law schools, women have assumed [leadership] positions in the law schools. That was unheard of early in my career.”

Garman added, ”It’s only been at later times in my career that I have seen more and more women become litigators.”

Garman’s advice to women lawyers who want to become judges is to follow their dreams.

”I think as a woman on the bench, there is no reason why a woman can’t be as capable a judge as any other human being.”

About a year after Garman became licensed as an Illinois lawyer, Goldenhersh was admitted to the Missouri bar in 1969. He joined the Illinois bar in 1972 and remained in private practice until 1975. At that time, he was selected as an associate judge in the 20th Judicial Circuit, in southern Illinois.

Goldenhersh, 64, is a second-generation judge, based in Belleville. His late father, Joseph H. Goldenhersh, served initially on the 5th District Appellate Court beginning in 1964 and on the Illinois Supreme Court from 1970 until 1987.

”We talked about judging a lot,” Goldenhersh said. ”Being with him was a judicial education.

”I learned an untold amount from him and he suggested books for me to read in law and jurisprudence,” Goldenhersh added.

Goldenhersh wears his father’s judicial robe when hearing oral arguments in Mount Vernon, where his father’s judicial career began.

”It’s comforting, it’s inspiring,” Goldenhersh said. ”It’s a very positive state of mind in which to listen to lawyers’ arguments.”

Since the 1980s there has been more discussion of so-called Rambo tactics in litigation, Goldenhersh said.

”That’s what I saw,” Goldenhersh added. ”It’s reflected in how a judge has to handle litigation.”

Goldenhersh believes the judiciary has come under increasing fire from the public and special-interest groups.

”People blame the courts for societal ills,” Goldenhersh added. ”We exist in an adversarial system in which disputes are brought to us. So, I think this blame is basically just scapegoating.”

”On the positive side,” he said, ”I think judges are more active, they are less isolated. They are more cognizant of society and the people who are affected by their decisions.”

Goldenhersh said that, out of the myriad matters judges handle, he struggles with one particular type of case.

”After almost 34 years [as a judge], child custody cases are the only ones that keep me awake at night,” he said.

Goldenhersh said the skills of both lawyers and judges have improved since he joined the legal profession.

He suggests that new judges listen before speaking and understand that the lawyers should know the case better than a judge ever will.

”Welcome new assignments, new areas of the law especially if you’ve had no contact with them,” Goldenhersh added. ”Be willing to reconsider and change your mind.

”Be active in the community and society,” Goldenhersh continued. ”Don’t get isolated.”

About six months after Goldenhersh joined the bench, the Illinois Supreme Court appointed Wolfson to the Cook County Circuit Court. He became a judge in late 1975 after more than 15 years handling criminal defense cases at the trial and appellate levels in Chicago.

Wolfson was elected to the circuit court in 1976 and has served by assignment on the appellate court since 1994.

”For the most part, I think lawyers appreciate the need to follow rules,” Wolfson said. ”I think the behavior is more ethical, not less.

”I think the practice is competitive [and] that a lot of civility has gone out of it in the bar,” Wolfson continued.

Along with the growth in the number of licensed Illinois lawyers, the ranks of Illinois judges have also grown since the mid-1970s. In 1976, there were about 700 Illinois judges. There are currently more than 960 state court judges in Illinois.

”When I went on the bench, everyone knew each other,” Wolfson said. ”Now, that’s not true.”

Judges now seem ”much more aware of the need to follow the Supreme Court rules on judicial behavior and make an effort to do it,” Wolfson added.

When he was a circuit judge, some jurists were described as being pro-plaintiff or prosecution-minded, while others were considered to favor the defense, he said.

”For the most part [now], we call them as we see them,” Wolfson said. ”We’re not bound to ideology. I think that’s an important change.”

Wolfson, 76, is known for his crisply written appellate decisions. He attempts to write in a fashion that makes the law clear and understandable.

His writing tips for other judges include using short, clear sentences and avoiding legal jargon.

”One thought at a time in a sentence,” Wolfson added. ”Then, read it out loud and see how it sounds.”

Fledgling judges now receive more extensive training, according to Wolfson. New judges in Cook County participate in two one-week training programs, one sponsored by the Illinois Supreme Court and the other by Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans.

Wolfson chairs the new judge program for the Cook County Circuit Court.

”The message I try to send [to new judges] is, first of all, be nice to people,” Wolfson said. ”Follow the law regardless of your personal beliefs or preferences and let the chips fall where they may.”

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