Illinois Supreme Court’s first female justice dies

By Bethany Krajelis | Feb 25, 2013

When Sheila Simon took office last year, she didn’t have to think twice about who would swear her in as the state’s new lieutenant governor.

Simon asked her late mother’s friend, former Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Ann McMorrow, to don a black robe and conduct the official task.

McMorrow and Simon’s mother, Jeanne Hurley Simon, became friends early on in their legal careers as the first two female attorneys to work in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, where Simon said they often got confused for each given their tall and slim statures.

Simon, a lawyer herself, said she keeps a photo of the two women from their time in the prosecutor’s office on her desk in Springfield, where it serves as a daily dose of inspiration and a reminder of how many barriers women have broken down in the legal profession since.

“They really were pioneers,” said Simon, the state’s first female lieutenant governor. “I had it easy compared to them.”

McMorrow died Saturday after a brief illness at the age of 83, according to a news release from the state high court.

Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis said in a statement that McMorrow “was an admirable trailblazer, who helped make it possible for all women to pursue a career in the Judiciary.”

During her five-decade-long legal career, McMorrow earned the distinction of being the first woman to do several things.

It started in 1953, when she graduated as the lone woman in her class from Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

She then became the first woman to try major felony cases as an assistant prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Despite breaking down that barrier, McMorrow experienced at least one instance of gender inequality in the prosecutor’s office, Simon said.

Simon said McMorrow shared a story a few years ago during a luncheon at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale about how she had prepared a brief for a case set to be argued before the Supreme Court, but wasn’t allowed to argue it.

Instead, Simon recalled, a supervisor in the prosecutor’s office assigned the argument to one of McMorrow’s male colleagues who was not nearly as prepared.

“The fact that she was able to overcome that and eventually become chief justice of the court that she was not allowed to argue before is just an amazing turnaround in the course of one career,” Simon said.

After her time in the prosecutor’s office, McMorrow was elected to the Cook County bench in 1976 and a decade later, to the First District Appellate Court, where she was became the first woman to chair the court’s executive committee.

McMorrow then went on to make history as the first woman to serve on the state Supreme Court in 1992 and then, the first female chief justice in 2002. She retired in 2005.

When she was sworn in as chief justice, McMorrow, according to the court’s release, said “I am the 115th chief justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois. You will notice after I take off my robe that I am the only one of the 114 chief justices who preceded me that wears a skirt.”

Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride said in a statement that as the first woman on the high court, McMorrow “was an inspiration to all women in the law in Illinois.”

“But through her courage, perseverance, wisdom, and character, she was a role model for all lawyers, regardless of gender,” he added. “Her legacy looms large over the Illinois legal system, evidenced by the fact we are the first court to include three women.”

During her time on the Supreme Court, McMorrow was involved in “tens of thousands” of cases, according to the court’s release that noted she authored 225 majority opinions and another 85 separate concurring or dissenting opinions.

One of the most well-known majority opinions she wrote came in 1997 in Best v. Taylor Machine Works. The court in that case held that tort-reform legislation seeking to cap non-economic damages for those injured through negligence was unconstitutional.

Tom Keefe, a Belleville attorney and interim dean at St. Louis University School of Law, said he argued before McMorrow during her time on the Supreme Court and occasionally ran into her at bar association events.

“I thought she was a very fine woman and distinguished jurist,” Keefe said. “She was very fair and very professional in my experiences in front of her. I thought she always treated litigants with respect and was well prepared.”

Her death, he said, is “certainly a loss for the profession.”

As president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois (WBAI), Karina Zabicki DeHayes said her group didn’t just lose a pioneer in the profession, but a friend.

McMorrow served as president of the WBAI from 1974 to 1975, but remained active with the group up until her passing, including attending a Jan. 31 event, DeHayes said.

“The one thing about Justice McMorrow was that she was very accessible,” she said. “When she went to events, she would make a point to reach out to some of the younger women and talk to them about what things were like when she was a young female attorney and the struggles that women faced then.”

In reading news articles about McMorrow’s death, DeHayes said she learned that the late justice believed being persuasive was better than being confrontational when it came to working with men.

McMorrow’s sentiment, DeHayes said, goes along with the WBAI’s theme for this year, “Women and Men Partnering for Excellence.”

“Seeing men as allies is something that I think was part of her spirit, a principle she stood for,” DeHayes said, adding that McMorrow gave so much to the WBAI over the years in both support and as a symbol of inspiration.

Saying that she feels privileged to have known McMorrow, Simon said the late justice managed to be a pioneer in the profession with grace.

Even though she was retired, Simon said McMorrow continued to attend events, like the luncheon at SIUC, to answer questions from aspiring attorneys in her ongoing mission to improve the legal profession.

She was friendly to everyone and had a great sense of humor, Simon said, recalling the last time she and her husband had lunch with McMorrow.

“We had so much fun. We went to a restaurant that she went to often enough that the waiters were charmed by her and knew exactly what she wanted,” Simon said. “I think it was half the fish and all of the dessert.”

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