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First native Springfield justice on state Supreme Court has died

Former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Benjamin K. Miller in 2017.
Illinois Supreme Court
Former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Benjamin K. Miller in 2017.

The first Springfield native to serve as an Illinois Supreme Court Justice died Sunday. Benjamin K. Miller, a former chief justice in the early 1990s, was 87.

When Miller came on the court in 1984, he was the youngest member by a decade.

John Lupton, executive director of the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission, said, “When he became chief, in 1991, he implemented some new guidelines, put together a commission on the administration of justice to examine how Illinois courts were working and operating, particularly in the juvenile system. And then, he was also part of the Illinois Family Violence Coordinating Council, which was one of the early things that looked after… court responses to domestic abuse cases. I mean, it sounds like, common sense now, but in the 1980s, and 1990s, it really wasn't.”

Current Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis, in a prepared release from the court, called Miller, who stepped down from the court in 2001, a giant in Illinois judicial and legal communities.

“He provided steady leadership and moved the courts forward in a profound way. He was always looking to the future and for ways to improve the court system. This is perfectly exemplified by his creation of both the Special Commission on the Administration of Justice and Illinois Family Violence Coordinating Council.”

During his 17-year tenure, Miller participated in more than 2,000 cases and wrote nearly 500 opinions, according to a release from the court system.

Miller established a law practice in Springfield, after graduating Vanderbilt University with a law degree in 1961. He also attended Springfield High School and Southern Illinois University Carbondale. In the 1960s, he served in Army and Navy reserves.

According to the release, “In 1976, the Illinois Supreme Court appointed Miller to be a judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, and he won election to the position in 1978. He served as presiding judge in the Sangamon County Circuit Court Criminal Felony Division from 1976 to 1980. In 1979, he garnered notice for judicial efficiency and fairness when assigned to the largest civilian death penalty case in the nation’s history: the Cook County prison-riot trials of 17 Pontiac Correctional Center inmates.

"He presided over nearly two years of pretrial hearings and jury selection for the case against 10 of the defendants, who were accused of mob action and murder for causing the riot and slaying three guards and critically injuring two others. After the defendants won acquittal in that 11-week trial, prosecutors dropped charges against the remaining men.’’

In 1981, Miller became Chief Judge of the Seventh Circuit and served in that capacity for a year, when he won election to the Fourth District Appellate Court, a 30-county area in central Illinois. In addition to judicial duties, Miller maintained an active membership in the Illinois State Bar Association, serving as treasurer from 1975 to 1976. He was also a member of the Sangamon County and American Bar associations and became the first male member of the Central Illinois Women’s Bar Association.

In 1984, Miller, a Republican, successfully ran to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court.

In the 1987 case People v. Wilson, Miller delivered the opinion that reversed and remanded a murder conviction and death penalty sentence.

In the appeal, Wilson maintained that he had been “punched, kicked, smothered with a plastic bag, electrically shocked, and forced against a hot radiator” by police interrogators. “The use of a defendant’s coerced confession as substantive evidence of his guilt is never harmless error,” Miller wrote in citing Chicago police brutality, “and the cause must therefore be remanded for a new trial.” At the second trial, the jury convicted Wilson without the confession and imposed a life sentence.

Meanwhile, the release said Miller helped establish a Springfield center for battered women and provided legal advice to domestic-abuse survivors. He developed the medical-legal curriculum at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, where he served for several years as an adjunct professor in the Department of Medical Humanities.

He also served terms as president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Springfield Mental Health Association and became a board member of ARC and the Springfield-Sangamon County Youth Service Bureau.

A visitation will be held on Saturday, March 23, from 1-2:45 p.m. with a funeral to follow at 3 p.m. Services will be held at Butler Funeral Home, 900 S. Sixth St. in Springfield.


Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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