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Theis sworn in as Illinois Supreme Court chief justice amid possible election shake-up

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis
Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis

Depending on election results, she could preside over first female-majority high court

This story has been edited.

SPRINGFIELD – Justice Mary Jane Theis was sworn in Wednesday as chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, the fourth woman in the state’s history to hold the position.

She’ll serve a three-year term replacing Justice Anne M. Burke, whose term as chief justice concluded Tuesday ahead of her planned retirement effective Nov. 30.

Theis is a Democrat from the court’s 1st District which encompasses Cook County and elects three of the court’s seven justices. She was chosen for the post through the court’s standard process of naming chief justice, which gives the position to the most tenured justice who has not yet held it.

“I look forward to working with the bench, bar and community at large to further the Court’s mission of providing access to equal justice, ensuring judicial integrity and upholding the rule of law,” Theis said in a news release. “Our goal continues to be increasing public trust and confidence in the courts.”

Theis, born in 1949 in Chicago, graduated from Loyola University in 1971 and earned her law degree from the University of San Francisco School of Law in 1974. She was appointed to the court in 2010 and she won election to her seat in 2012.

She’ll be on Cook County ballots this election cycle facing a retention vote, which requires 60 percent approval from the electorate for her to receive another 10-year term.

Her duties as chief justice will include serving as the court’s chief administrative officer, which oversees more than 900 judges in the statewide judicial system. The chief justice also selects Supreme Court agenda items, supervises all Supreme Court committee appointments, chairs the executive committee of the Illinois Judicial Conference and presents the court’s budget request to lawmakers.

Theis takes over the court that, beginning in December, could consist of a majority of justices who have less than one year of experience on the high court. Republican Justice Lisa Holder White was sworn in on July 7, replacing retired Justice Rita Garman in the 4th District. In December, Democrat Joy Cunningham will replace Burke in District 1.

Depending on the Nov. 8 election results, Theis also may preside over the court’s first female majority in its history.

Two Supreme Court seats in the Chicago suburbs and surrounding counties are up for vote this year, and the partisan makeup of the court could flip from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 4-3 Republican one. If both Democrats win, the party would hold a 5-2 advantage.

Incumbent Justice Michael Burke, a 2nd District Republican who is not related to Anne Burke, is running for election in the 3rd District. He has served on the court since being appointed to replace retired Justice Robert Thomas in 2020, but he’s running in the 3rd District after lawmakers redrew the state’s judicial maps in 2021.

He’s running against Democrat Mary Kay O’Brien, an appellate court justice since 2004 who was previously a member of the state House of Representatives from 1997 until 2003.

Michael Burke was rated “strongly recommended” by the Illinois State Bar Association, while O’Brien was rated “recommended.” Capitol News Illinois recapped that race and interviewed each candidate here.

The 3rd District is where former Justice Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat, lost a retention vote in 2020, although the boundaries changed with the remap. He garnered 56.5 percent of the vote while needing 60 to gain another 10-year term, creating the vacancy to be filled this election.

The 2nd District is up for grabs Nov. 8 as well. Experienced Judge Elizabeth Rochford is running as a Democrat against judicial newcomer Mark Curran, a former Lake County sheriff and unsuccessful Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2020.

While Rochford is rated “strongly recommended” by the Illinois State Bar Association, Curran has been rated “not recommended.” Capitol News Illinois covered that race here.

In each of the races, abortion has become a major issue on the airwaves, with backers of the Democrats attacking Republicans as having “extreme” stances on the topic. While Curran has spoken extensively against abortion in previous campaigns, Burke in an interview with Capitol News Illinois denied ever making any public statements or giving any indication of how he might rule on the issue of abortion.

Political committees backing the Republicans, meanwhile, have focused on corruption within the Democratic party and the candidates’ potential ties to indicted Democratic power players.

For O’Brien, that’s focused on her time in the General Assembly and campaign contributions she accepted from the Democratic Party of Illinois and other campaign funds that were once controlled by indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan. O’Brien has denied any Madigan links and said she was elected without his help.

O’Brien and Burke each touted their judicial records as proof of their impartiality on the bench.

Rochford has been attacked for Madigan ties as well, although she denies even knowing him and there’s no evidence to say that she does. She was, however, a donor to indicted Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, giving $15,000 to the one-time Chicago powerbroker over the years.

That included a $1,500 check cashed after Burke’s offices were raided by federal authorities, although the Rochford campaign said it was written for the alderman’s annual Christmas fundraiser before news of the indictment or investigation of Burke had broken.

Ed Burke is married to former Chief Justice Anne Burke but is not related to Justice Michael Burke.

Rochford touted her decade of judicial experience and impartiality as her main qualification for the court, while Curran said a Republican majority is the only way to adequately check Democratic power in Illinois.

Each Democratic candidate’s campaign fund has received $500,000 from Gov. JB Pritzker as well.

The other justices on the high court are David K. Overstreet, a Republican from Southern Illinois’ 5th District who was seated in 2020, and Justice P. Scott Neville, a 1st District Democrat who was appointed to the court in 2018 and elected to it in 2020.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Jerry Nowicki is bureau chief of Capitol News Illinois and has been with the organization since its inception in 2019.
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