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Illinois Justice James Heiple Passes Away

Justice James Heiple declined to run for another term on the Illinois Supreme Court in 2000. He died Friday in Peoria at age 87.
Justice James Heiple declined to run for another term on the Illinois Supreme Court in 2000. He died Friday in Peoria at age 87.

A noted and sometimes controversial jurist from central Illinois has died.

Former Illinois Chief Supreme Court Justice James Heiple was 87, according to a release from the Illinois Supreme Court.

“Justice Heiple had a long and distinguished career in the judiciary and legal community,” Chief Justice Anne M. Burke said. “He will forever be remembered for the ‘Baby Richard Case’ and the controversy that came during his time on the Supreme Court.”

The Peoria native grew up and practiced law in Washington and Pekin. Heiple served 10 years on the circuit court, 10 years on the Third District Appellate Court and 10 years on the Illinois Supreme Court, stepping down in 2000.

In 1994, Heiple wrote the unanimous opinion that returned “Baby Richard,” Daniel Kirchner, to his biological parents. The mother had relinquished her rights to the infant immediately after his March 1991 birth and refused to reveal the father’s name to the adoptive parents. Several months later, she told the father of the child’s existence, and he hired an attorney to challenge the adoption.

Circuit and appeals courts agreed the father had not shown interest in the boy within the first 30 days of his life, as required by law, thus abandoning his parental rights. The Supreme Court justices reversed the ruling.

Illinois adoption laws, Heiple wrote, “are designed to protect natural parents in their preemptive rights to their own children wholly apart from any consideration of the so-called best interests of the child. If it were otherwise, few parents would be secure in the custody of their own children.”

Heiple became chief justice of the state’s highest court in 1997.

Soon after, the state’s Judicial Inquiry Board charged Heiple with misconduct for having repeatedly disobeyed police instructions during traffic stops in Pekin and for invoking his position to evade citations.

In a contentious move, Heiple appointed Justice Moses Harrison II, arguably his closest colleague on the Supreme Court, to chair an Illinois Courts Commission panel investigating Heiple. The Illinois House of Representatives unanimously authorized a bipartisan impeachment investigation of Heiple because of the Harrison appointment, as well as Heiple’s traffic stops.

The Courts Commission censured Heiple for damaging “the court system’s integrity” and three days before the start of the House investigation, he resigned as chief justice.

“I refused to resign from the Supreme Court entirely; I had done nothing impeachable, and I was unwilling to allow my political and media enemies to prevail over my demise,” Heiple said at the time.

“Justice Heiple exemplified the very highest integrity and followed the law without fear or favor. He was one of the finest jurists Illinois has ever had,” said Appellate Justice William E. Holdridge. “He had a marvelous ability to draft concise and to-the-point legal opinions and his judicial writings are still quoted today.”

During his time on the Supreme Court, Justice Heiple authored 175 majority opinions, 98 dissents, 27 special concurrences and 18 partial concurrences/partial dissents.

Heiple passed away on Jan. 18 at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria from complications following a brain hemorrhage.

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