Last day for Ill. Supreme Court's chief justice

October 26, 2010 6:01:31 AM PDT
Monday was the last day on the bench for Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, who made the decision to step down after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

The many pictures that have documented his years on the bench are now boxed up, removed from the walls of his office, which his been made ready for the next Supreme tenant.

Thomas Fitzgerald leaves his job -- earlier than planned -- because of Parkinson's, but as many would say, he's left his mark as a model of judicial integrity for better than three decades.

"I said to myself, I can do this for the rest of my professional life, and I'll enjoy doing it and be happy doing it, and then they asked me to go to traffic court," said Fitzgerald.

There was a reason Thomas Fitzgerald was sent to traffic court back in the 1980s. Operation Greylord had exposed crooked judges and a judicial culture that invited corruption and shook public trust. Fitzgerald is credited with cleaning it up.

"The decision that I made, and I think it worked, was to trust the law, to take these cases and try these cases as cases are tried, not some other way," said Fitzgerald.

Judicial reform has been a hallmark of his career. As the presiding criminal courts judge, Fitzgerald shepherded efforts to direct drug addicts into treatment programs instead of prison, and he would later chair a commission that made critical changes in the training of lawyers and judges involved in death penalty cases.

In January of 2009, as chief Justice of the state Supreme court, Fitzgerald presided over the Senate trial of ex-governor Rod Blagojevich. It was an event with little precedent -- technically a legislative, not a judicial proceeding -- but lawmakers credit Fitzgerald's for his calm, dignified demeanor.

"The only thing I did, I tried to make everybody understand that this was serious business-- that they had to approach it seriously, because it was a solemn command that was on their part," Fitzgerald said.

Throughout his career, Fitzgerald has been regarded as an innovator, a legal scholar, a judge and justice not caught in the trappings of office.

"Remember, they stand up because some man whose in charge tells you to stand up. They don't do it because of you, they do it because of the robe," said Fitzgerald. "We're tenants. We're not owners, and we have to treat what has been given to us as a scared trust."

Tuesday, Appellate Court Judge Mary Jane Theis becomes the newest member of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Her selection to fill out the Fitzgerald term means that for the first time there are three women on the state's highest court.

The outgoing Chief Justice Tom Fitzgerald will conduct the swearing in.


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