On Christmas Eve 1973, Rita Garman (68JD) was in the car with her husband and two-year-old daughter, on the way to visit family in Joliet, Illinois. As the family listened to the Santa tracking report on Chicago’s WGN radio, an announcement came on: the first woman had been appointed to the Fifth Judicial Circuit in downstate Illinois. The broadcast then quickly returned to informing the good little boys and girls of Illinois of the whereabouts of the jolly old elf.
The judge was Garman, and that broadcast was the first she’d heard of her new, boundary-breaking job.
Garman’s story is one of tenacity and seizing opportunities that weren’t readily available for women. The longest-serving judge in Illinois at the time she retired in 2022, Garman was recently awarded the University of Iowa College of Law’s Alumni Service Award.
Garman wanted to be a lawyer from the time she was a teenager. She wanted to be independent and able to support herself and her family. Law offered a range of possibilities to do that. Along the way, she also convinced her boyfriend – eventually husband – Gill Garman (68JD) that law school would be a good fit for him as well, and the two attended Iowa Law together.
When Garman started her legal career, some were “dismissive.” During job interviews, she heard comments like, “You’re just going to have children and quit,” and “How can you be a lawyer [when] your husband’s a lawyer?”.
When she and her husband moved from Iowa back to their native Illinois after law school, Garman had trouble finding a job. She was tapped to work for the Vermilion County Legal Aid Society when the federally-funded organization’s director resigned and it needed to hire an attorney to retain its funding. Her salary was $90 a week. The organization’s board told her, “Don’t get into anything long term,” because the office might shut down.
As a junior attorney with no prior legal work experience, Garman relied on two legal secretaries in the office to guide her in court procedure. The court clerks – who were all women – also helped point her in the right direction at the courthouse. “I learned to practice law how you learn to ride a bicycle, by just doing it,” she says.
The Legal Aid office didn’t close and eventually hired a new director. By that time, Garman had gained court experience. The Illinois State Attorney’s office approached her about a position working on family and juvenile cases in Vermilion County and she took the opportunity for a permanent job. “I had not even been able to get an interview in the State’s Attorney’s Office … when I [first] came to town,” she recalls. “They changed their tune after they saw me in the courthouse and practicing.”
Someone else also took notice: A judge before whom she practiced asked, “Have you ever thought about being a judge?”. The judge told Garman she had the right abilities and temperament for the bench. The next time an associate judge retired, she put her name in for consideration. After the Christmas Eve radio announcement, she was sworn in on January 7, 1974.
A series of firsts
After serving as the first woman associate judge in the circuit, she was next elected as a circuit judge. In 1995, she became the first female judge in the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court. In 2001, she was appointed to a vacancy in the Illinois Supreme Court, winning an election the next year to remain on the bench.
“It was only when I got to the Supreme Court of Illinois that there was another woman in the room, [Chief Justice Mary Ann McMorrow],” Garman notes.
From 2013 to 2016, Garman served as Chief Justice. When she retired, Garman was the longest-serving judge in Illinois and of course also the longest-serving female judge in the state.
A role model for the next generation
After her retirement in July 2022, Garman says she has been fortunate to take a “number of victory laps” recognizing her years breaking the glass ceiling in the Illinois judiciary. One of the “victory laps” is the Alumni Service Award, for which she is “deeply honored and humbled.”
At the time of that fateful Christmas Eve radio broadcast, there was a shortage of female role models in the profession. Garman has done her part to create role models for the next generation. During her remarks at the Iowa Law awards ceremony, she mentioned her five grandchildren. “Today, as those grandchildren look around, there is not a single area where a woman or someone of a diverse background has not succeeded,” she said. “The path has been carved – but it is not well-worn. There is a lot of room for them – and all of you – to create your own direction.”