SPRINGFIELD — When Justice Robert Carter, who is slated to become the newest member of the Illinois Supreme Court when he is sworn in in December, was a chief circuit judge, he would remind the nascent trial judges to be humble in their new role.
“I always told the new judges that everything you do should be done with the greatest amount of humility because you don’t have all the answers. You’re just trying to do the best based on the facts as you find them, and the law that applies to those facts,” Carter said in a phone interview this week with Capitol News Illinois.
On Tuesday, the Illinois Supreme Court appointed Carter to fill the vacancy created by Justice Thomas Kilbride’s departure from the bench. Kilbride, a Democrat, lost his retention election last week to remain on the bench for a third 10-year term, marking the first time an Illinois Supreme Court justice failed to win retention.
Carter will hold the seat for two years until voters elect a permanent successor for Kilbride’s seat to a 10-year term in the November 2022 judicial election.
Given his length of service as a judge and the fact that his wife wants him to retire, Carter said he decided against running in 2022.
“And (my wife) is happy that I’m committed to retirement, now,” he said.
At age 33, Carter was appointed to serve as an associate judge on the 13th Judicial Circuit Court. The 74-year-old has spent more than 40 years as a judge — first on the circuit court and then the appellate court.
“To me, it’s been an honor to serve as a judge all these years. You just try to do the best you can every day in the office. What you do as a judge has an impact not only on the litigants before you, but it really has an impact on the broader community because you can touch the lives of so many people when you make rulings,” he said.
Retired Judge David Hylla, former Chief Judge of the 3rd Judicial Circuit, said in an interview that although he feels that Kilbride’s departure is a loss for the Illinois Supreme Court, he believes Carter is an excellent choice to replace the outgoing justice.
“Everybody that knows the judiciary in the state of Illinois knows who he is, and knows that he will do a fantastic job on the Supreme Court,” said Hylla, a former chair of the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges. “First of all, he has a great personality, he really connects with people, and he’s very likable – on a personal level. On a professional level, he’s been involved in statewide administrative matters for a long time.”
Carter ran as a Democrat when he secured an elected seat on the 13th Judicial Circuit in 1988, after losing a race for a circuit judgeship in 1986.
But his legal career began before that, when he was a law clerk for a Republican justice on the Illinois Supreme Court, Howard Ryan, following his graduation from the University of Illinois College of Law in 1974.
“Ruling on cases and being a judge is not a partisan matter. It’s about following the law based on the facts,” Carter said.
Justice David K. Overstreet, a Republican who was elected last week to the Illinois Supreme Court, echoed this sentiment as he said he fully supports the court’s decision to select Carter, which preserves the Democrats’ 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court.
“It’s a great day for Illinois courts when you have someone of (Carter’s) stature to be serving on the Illinois Supreme Court,” Overstreet said in a phone interview. “The (political) party does not have any consideration in my work as a judge, nor in my assessment of (Carter) as a very outstanding judge with a great reputation.”
Overstreet, currently a 5th District Appellate Court Justice, won his race to fill the vacancy left by Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who is set to retire next month.
Carter is one of seven justices serving on the 3rd District Appellate Court, and currently the only justice to be appointed, rather than elected, to that court. Since appointing Carter to the appellate court in 2006, the Illinois Supreme Court has periodically extended his appointment, typically every two years.
Carter said he believes transparency from the court is critical to gaining the public’s trust in the judicial system.
“When there’s litigation, there’s an opinion from the court that’s filed explaining its analysis, the facts and its legal reasoning. And that’s for all to see,” Carter said. “When I was a trial judge, I would explain the reasons for my ruling. And I thought, in some ways, it was for the person who was going to lose the case that you’re trying to explain all the reasons why you were ruling that way. They might not like it, but at least they realize that you gave their case serious consideration and thoughtfulness.”
Throughout his tenure, Carter has served on numerous court committees and organizations, including the Illinois Judicial Conference, the Illinois Supreme Court’s Legislative Committee, the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges and the Illinois Judges Association, of which he served as president in 1995.
When Carter served as vice chair and then chair of the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges, he led the group’s mentorship committee and helped establish the Illinois Supreme Court’s mentorship program in 1998 that assigned judicial mentors to new judges.
“I think it’s a great program because, in this day and age, you hear a lot in organizations and different kinds of professions the need for people to have mentors, and the advantage you have in life and in the beginning of your career, if you’ve had a mentor to help guide you in the right direction. That’s what the mentorship programs are about,” he said.
Former Illinois Judges Association President Justice Mary S. Schostok, who serves on the 2nd District Appellate Court, described Carter as passionate, thorough and even-keeled.
“He’s always prepared and ready to give his take on whatever the subject is,” Schostok said. “I think because of his years, and also because of his personality, he’s just very well equipped for the job. I think they made a great decision with him.”
Schostok said she’s disappointed he’s not going to run in November 2022 but said his decision is understandable given that the upcoming judicial race will be a fiercely competitive one.
“I wouldn’t want to put anyone through this upcoming election because it’s going to be brutal,” she said.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.