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Through the Glass Ceiling: It's clear that the number of women judges is on the rise in Cook County

The sign on the door used to read “Men Only.” A woman could be at the top of her law school class, but she wasn’t getting into the judiciary. In recent years, though, women have chipped that figurative sign off the door of the Cook County Circuit Court, and a growing number of them are becoming judges.

This increase is attributed largely to the creation of judicial subcircuits within that county, and to a rise in the sheer number of women lawyers.

The consequences of this trend are harder to track. Some observers say women bring much needed diversity and broader perspectives to the courtroom. “Certainly from the public’s point of view,” says Circuit Judge Julia Nowicki of Cook County’s chancery division, “it makes for great confidence in the system to see someone like you.” Thirty years ago, she says, the Cook County bench was filled with Irishmen.

Yet the impact of female jurisprudence has to be fully explored. Researchers are identifying trends in decision-making and sentencing by female judges, but admit more work needs to be done. 

Meanwhile, the ranks of female judges are increasing. Nearly one-third of the judges, 126 of 401, in the Cook County Circuit Court system are now women. 

In 1991, when Chicago Lawyer magazine started tracking diversity in the circuit, only 13.2 percent, or 51, of the circuit’s 385 judges were women.

These gains follow on the heels of women’s gains in the Illinois legislature. In 1979, women comprised only 11 percent of the 236-member General Assembly. They made rapid gains in the 1980s and early ’90s, but women haven’t increased their numbers much in the legislature for several years. 

Yet since the mid-’90s, women have been making consistent gains in the judiciary. Today they serve at every level of Illinois’ court system — and in ever-growing numbers.

These gains match a national trend. Constance Belfiore, executive director of the National Association of Women Judges, says the number of women on the bench nationwide is increasing, though her evidence is anecdotal. 

Neither her group nor the National Center for State Courts has a clear count of women judges nationwide. In Illinois, tracking the increase statewide requires some extrapolation. According to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, for instance, women account for 216 of the 935 active state and federal judges, compared to only eight of the 363 registered retired judges. 

It is clear, though, that the number of women judges is on the rise in Cook County. And Marlene Kurilla, a vice president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois and partner with Cremer, Kopon, Shaughnessy & Spina in Chicago, ascribes this increase to the subcircuit system, created by the legislature in 1989. Though that county constitutes its own judicial circuit, it was divided into 15 subcircuits with roughly equal population, a move designed to help minorities and Republicans make gains. Though they serve the entire circuit, judges are elected from smaller geographical areas, and minorities and women have benefited from this chance to be elected without the substantial political war chest needed to run circuitwide.

While Cook County is the only circuit with subcircuits, state Sen. Terry Link, a Vernon Hills Democrat, introduced a measure this spring to create judicial subcircuits in Will, DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties. Link says the measure is not designed to help women make gains in those circuits.

Nevertheless, it could help them indirectly. Women have made gains in the 21 circuits outside Cook County, but the percentage falls short of Cook’s dramatic gains. Downstate, where most circuits cover multiple counties, women are still a distinct minority on the bench. In 1991, only 8.4 percent of the 430 downstate circuit judges were women. While almost doubling their numbers to 67, women still hold only 14.9 percent of the 449circuit judgeships outside of Cook.

Still, women have made gains overall. They have, over the past decade or so, broken through all judicial glass ceilings. Mary Ann McMorrow, a Democrat who came up through the ranks in Cook County, became the first women to sit on the Illinois Supreme Court and, last September, the first female chief justice. She was joined on the bench by Rita Garman, a Danville Republican who also came up through the judicial ranks in her east central region of the state. 

McMorrow says women are winning judicial races because Illinoisans have come to the “realization that there’s no inherent reason why women can’t be judges.” 

But Dawn Clark Netsch, a law professor emerita at Northwestern University and a former state comptroller, says voters may think women are more ethical. And she adds that women voters may choose women judges as an exercise in female political power.

Yet more subtle factors may be at work. Though motivation is hard to pinpoint, Gino DiVito, a former appellate and circuit court judge, notes that Cook County voters tend to pick women candidates with Irish-American names over male candidates with other ethnic names. 

Running for judge is hard work, nevertheless. And a win is not certain. Yet Nowicki says more women are taking that risk because there simply are more women in the legal profession. “It’s one of your choices in life [to be a judge],” she says, rather than a barrier to break. And the pay is competitive: Associate judges earn $127,247 per year, while circuit judges earn $136,546 per year. 

“There are more women lawyers willing to take the plunge,” says Netsch. This coincides with women’s choices to move into many professions over the past two decades. 

The social culture has changed too. Attitudes about women’s courtroom abilities were not always so enlightened, as Myra Bradwell discovered in 1869. Attempting to become Illinois’ first woman lawyer, Bradwell was refused admission to the Illinois Bar because of her gender. She took her case to the Illinois Supreme Court, but it upheld the refusal because, “God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action, and it belonged to men to make, apply and execute the laws.” 

The court feared that if Bradwell could practice law, women would then want access to all civil offices, such as governor — an idea the justices found disturbing. Bradwell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but was again denied admission to the bar on the basis of gender. 

Two years later, in 1871, the Illinois attorney general told another woman, Amelia Hobbs, she could not serve as justice of the peace because the law did not permit him to certify the election of a woman. 

A little more than a century later, when McMorrow first became a judge in the Cook County Circuit Court, she said most women were relegated to traffic court. Now women preside over three of the circuit court’s nine divisions. They include Judge Patricia Martin Bishop, who presides over the child protection division.

Martin Bishop says the nominating committee for Cook County associate judges, who are picked by elected circuit court judges, works diligently to ensure a diverse bench. Julie Bauer, chair of the Alliance for Women committee of the Chicago Bar Association sees such diversity as beneficial. “Increasing diversity gives the court increasing credibility,” she says. 

Having more women on the bench can make a difference in areas of family law, domestic relations or cases involving children, Netsch says. But women judges adamantly oppose any idea that they show favoritism to women in the courtroom or are more sympathetic to cases involving children. 

Researchers, nevertheless, say women judges may rule differently in certain areas of the law. According to Robert Van Sickel and Linda Maule, political science faculty and researchers at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind., women judges tend to impose harsher sentences in criminal cases than their male counterparts. 

Van Sickel published a study three years ago in the Justice System Journal on “masculine and feminine voice and style traits” of judges. It examined the judicial decision-making and judicial style of 28 trial court judges — men and women — from Indiana, New York, Wyoming, California and Washington, D.C. Though researchers expected that men judges would be more likely to adhere strictly to rules and procedures, the study found that women judges ran their courtrooms in more authoritarian ways. At the same time, women judges were more likely to side with prosecutors. “Women employed a more masculine style [in the courtroom] than men did,” Van Sickel says.

Maule says the assumption formu-lated by feminist theorists that women judges would be more nurturing or compassionate has not proven to be the case in her research. 

“They are working hard not to perform as women,” she says. “They may reach the same conclusions, but use a different decision-making process or different values. Because of past experience, certain things resonate more with them than men.” 

McMorrow agrees. “We bring to the bench what we are.” 

Illinois Issues, March 2003

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