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LGBT judges discuss paths to the bench
by Matt Simonette
2018-03-14

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A panel of prominent LGBT judges and one justice from the Illinois State Supreme Court met March 8 to discuss the need for diversity on the bench.

"The Lavender Bench: Experiences of LGBTQ Judges in Illinois" was held in the downtown offices of the Hinshaw & Culbertson law firm, with the session moderated by openly lesbian Cook County Circuit Court Judge Cecilia Horan. Participants included Associate Judge Mary Catherine Marubio and Judge John Ehrlich of Cook County Circuit Court, and federal Judge Staci Michelle Yandle. Illinois State Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis also took part.

Theis spoke at length about the need for persons from a variety of backgrounds among judges, noting that, "I'm committed to diversity on the bench—that means I want all the people in this room on the bench."

She further explained the rigamarole involved in getting to that stage in a legal career, describing the legal experience, community participation and political acumen a prospective judge needs to acquire. Campaigning for a judgeship, Theis said, is often one of the most difficult steps in a legal career.

"You have to go out and communicate to people why they should vote for you, and that's tough," she said. "[The decision] may be up to a million voters."

Ehrlich concurred. After an early, difficult campaign, he vowed that he would never campaign again, but the possibility of a new position later became enticing.

"You have to be willing to go out and get [ballot] signatures yourself," he said. "You have to go to the fundraisers for the alderman and the committeeman, because that's where you meet people with money."

Yandle, who was appointed to her job by former President Barack Obama, was spared having to campaign, but her confirmation process was no less arduous. She recalled that the application, without any attachments, was about 60 pages, and she had to undergo both an IRS audit and a scrupulous background check.

"They found people that I hadn't seen since I was 13," she said.

Yandle was one of about a dozen openly LGBT judges nominated by Obama. Though she has long been out, she was rarely in such a high-profile position before her confirmation. Prior to the nominations, only one federal judge was openly gay, so Yandle had to accept that her being a member of the LGBT community would be part of the "narrative" that went along with her confirmation.

"That was when I learned the difference between being openly gay and publicly gay—they're not the same thing," she recalled, adding that she ultimately faced the most scrutiny from federal officials because she was a trial lawyer.

"That's what they beat me over the head with," she said.

Marubio said that, for the near future, it would still be important for LGBT judges to publicly identify as members of the community, adding, "I think it needs to carry the narrative."

After the discussion, Horan added, "We've got some wonderful diversity on the bench now, but we've got a 'bubble' in Cook County. We've got a good number of judges here, but that needs to spread into southern Illinois and the federal bench as well."


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