They came from very different backgrounds, but friends, family and colleagues of former Illinois Supreme Court Justices Mary Ann McMorrow and John Nickels said the late jurists shared some common characteristics.
McMorrow, a lifelong resident of Chicago’s North Side, and Nickels, who was raised on a farm in Kane County, were born on the same day –Jan. 16--one year a part and died earlier this year after serving on the state high court, which they both joined in 1992.
A memorial service for the two took place Wednesday in the Supreme Court courtroom in Chicago, where more than 100 people gathered to remember the former justices.
Chief Justice Rita Garman said although McMorrow and Nickels couldn’t have had more different upbringings, they both showed thoughtfulness, collegiality and a passion for justice during their time behind the bench.
“Their contributions to the state of Illinois … will not be forgotten,” Garman said, adding that their legacies will live on as future courts continue to look to their past opinions for guidance.
Garman followed in McMorrow’s footsteps last month, when she became the second woman in state history to serve chief justice.
After graduating as the only woman in her law school class in 1953, McMorrow went on to become the first woman to do several things in Illinois’ legal community.
She was one of first two women hired in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the first woman to try a felony case there, the first female Illinois Supreme Court justice and in 2002, became the first woman to be named chief justice. She retired in 2005.
Former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Miller said he remembers when McMorrow joined the court. He said there was a lot of excitement, as well as a curiosity over how the justices would handle sharing a single bathroom.
He said the question, which was one of first impression at that time given that only men had served on the court, was solved by putting a lock on the door and renaming it the women’s restroom with the provision that men were allowed to use it.
Although the law doesn’t change depending on the gender of the judge analyzing it, Miller said McMorrow brought a new perspective to the court, along with her kind, caring and compassionate ways.
She wasn’t afraid to disagree, lead or follow, Miller said, adding that “I am better for knowing her.”
McMorrow’s daughter, Mary Ann McMorrow Jr., said while her mother carried several “first” distinctions, she knew her best as her mother or “ma” as she referred to her during the memorial service.
On top of being a respected attorney and judge, McMorrow Jr. said her mother was a just good person.
She recalled that the worst thing her mother did as a child was throwing her brother’s watch out the window and that she made her sister pay when she worked at a candy store.
McMorrow Jr. said her mother always made her Halloween costumes, but never let her be anything “bad” and instead opted for creating outfits depicting an angel, a pumpkin and a Christmas tree.
She said her mother had a unique style and that a friend once dubbed her hair as legendary. She said her mother had “a cute sense of humor,” an observation that was backed up by Cook County Associate Judge Thomas More Donnelly
Donnelly said his former mentor was “playful, passionate and principled.”
He said McMorrow was always teasing, but serious when it came to the law. As evidence, he held up a copy of a draft opinion he had written for her that was riddled with red ink.
Like McMorrow, Justice Charles Freeman said Nickels possessed a principled and passionate attitude behind the bench. He served on the high court from 1992 to 1998.
He recalled the “slight twang” in Nickels’ voice when he was first introduced to the court. Freeman said all of his stereotypes kicked in, but that he “was dead wrong” about his assumptions over Nickels.
Freeman said while the justices were debating a petition for rehearing in People v. Rolando Cruz, Nickels expressed concerns over how the court’s previous decisions that upheld the defendant’s death sentence affected the families of parties involved.
Nickels’ sentiments, Freeman said, prompted him to include a paragraph in his ruling to grant the rehearing that apologized for denying the families’ closure.
Freeman said Nickels had “an unwavering respect for the law,” a strong devotion to his family, “endless passion, quite dignity and a deep sense of humility,” as well as a commitment to service.
Although Nickels only served on the high court for six years, Freeman said he achieved more in those years that many in the legal profession only hope to do over the course of a lifetime.
Justice Robert Thomas, who sits the Second District seat Nickels once held, said the phrase “setting the tone” comes to mind when he thinks of his late predecessor.
Thomas recalls that during his time on the appellate court, he and his fellow colleagues were often loud and combative during conference meetings.
When Nickels came in the room, however, Thomas said his spirit of collegiality and civility “instantly set a new tone” and taught them a better way to deliberate, debate and argue.
Nickels’ daughter, Margaret Mangers, read a letter written by her brother Philip, who was unable to attend the memorial service because he was out of the country on a mission trip.
In the letter, Nickels’ son said he knew from a young age his dad was respected, but didn’t necessarily know why. As he grew older, Philip Nickels said he began to understand his dad was a talented judge who touched many people’s lives.
Having six sisters, Philip Nickels said he was glad to have his father as an example and appreciated the time his family spent at his dad’s farm.
Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA) President Paula Holderman thanked the families of the McMorrow and Nickels for sharing their loved ones with the legal community.
She said they both were diligent and well-respected lawyers and judges who never allowed their status as Supreme Court justices change them.
At one of the ISBA’s mid-year meetings, Holderman said she remembers Nickels announcing his retirement from the Supreme Court and saying “This farmer’s son is going home. I'm going back to the land that has always nourished my soul."
Holderman said it was bittersweet to talk about McMorrow, who she had always hoped would speak about her when she took over as ISBA president earlier this year.
McMorrow, she said, was a great judge who not only contributed to the legal community, but helped women progress in the field.
Saying that she was a caring mentor with a sense of humor and elegance, Holderman said McMorrow wanted others to succeed and regularly attended bar events after her retirement in “her trademark St. John’s suits.”