Jonathan Bilyk Nov. 3, 2015, 1:30pm

After a decade on Illinois’ state high court and decades more on the Cook County bench, Justice Tom Fitzgerald left a mark on the state and the law, thanks to “an old-school,” scholarly judicial temperament and approach, tempered by a warm, kind heart, say those who came to know him during his years presiding in courtrooms in Chicago and Springfield.

Fitzgerald, 74, died Sunday, Nov. 1, at his home, according to a release from the Illinois Supreme Court.

He had served on the Illinois Supreme Court from 2000-2010, capping a judicial career spanning 34 years. His career on the bench began in 1976, when he became the youngest elected circuit judge in Cook County. He served as a trial judge in the Cook County Criminal Court from 1976-1987, when he was appointed to serve as Supervising Judge of Traffic Court following the Operation Greylord scandal.

From there, he served as presiding judge of the county’s criminal courts beginning in 1989, until he was elected to the state Supreme Court from the First Judicial District in 2000.

He was elected by his fellow justices to serve as Chief Justice in 2008. But he retired two years later, when he announced he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Colleagues and others credited him with achievements to improve the county and the state and associated legal and criminal justice systems.

Amid the fallout from Greylord, for instance, Fitzgerald was credited with stepping up to restore integrity in Cook County’s traffic courts. And as presiding judge in Cook County’s criminal courts, he was credited with creating evening drug courts “to help drug addicts receive treatment and to relieve jail overcrowding,” according to the Illinois Supreme Court’s release.

In 1999, he was appointed to chair the Illinois Supreme Court’s Special Supreme Court Committee on Capital Cases, helping to draft “pioneering rules to improve the quality of justice in the trial of capital cases, including a requirement that death penalty cases only be tried by (Supreme) Court certified attorneys,” the high court’s release said.

“Tom was always ready to take on the tough assignments,” Supreme Court Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier said in a statement. “His contributions to the integrity of the court system were profound and invaluable.”

Just before his retirement, Fitzgerald, as Chief Justice, presided over the impeachment trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“It was fitting that in a time of crisis in the state of Illinois, he was the very public face of integrity, and his dignity and wisdom provided confidence in the proceeding,” Justice Mary Jane Theis said.

Theis said further, “His commitment to the highest standards of judicial conduct, in the trial courts and on the Supreme Court, inspired generations of judges.”

Like Fitzgerald’s colleagues, Michael Reagan, an attorney now based in Ottawa who has argued before the state Supreme Court since 1981, described Fitzgerald as a judge known for integrity and a high degree of judicial scholarship, reflecting his desire to “put in the work and analysis” needed to handle even the most complex cases

“He was an old-school, old-fashioned judge, while not being old-fashioned in his thinking,” Reagan said.

He said Fitzgerald’s approach on the bench was also marked by a “great deal of inherent kindness and respect for all who came before him.”

“He was in the mold of what people think a judge should be,” Reagan said.

In the Supreme Court’s release, high court justices said Fitzgerald’s contributions to the legal system will be missed, as well as his desire to “make a very good judiciary even better.”

“The people of Illinois were privileged to have Thomas Fitzgerald as a member of the Illinois Supreme Court for a decade, and I was privileged to be his colleague and friend,” said current Chief Justice Rita B. Garman. “Tom Fitzgerald was dedicated to serving the people of Illinois and to making the judicial system as fair, efficient and accessible as it could possibly be.”

Fitzgerald is survived by his wife, Gayle; five children, Maura (Scott) O’Daniel, Kathryn (Howard) Chang, Jean (Shawn) Fendick, Thomas A. (Christina) Fitzgerald, and Ann (Jason) Butler; and eight grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, at Hallowell & James Funeral Home, Countryside. A Funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m. Nov. 6, at St. Francis Xavier Church, 124 N. Spring Ave., La Grange.

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