SPRINGFIELD — Lloyd Karmeier has gone a great distance in life without straying far from southern Illinois.
Karmeier, 76, who attended a one-room schoolhouse in rural Washington County before graduating as valedictorian from Okawville Community High School in 1958 and going on to earn his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Illinois, was sworn in Monday as the 120th chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.
In his position, which he’ll fill for three years after being elected by his fellow justices on the seven-member court, Karmeier will serve as the top administrator for Illinois’ judicial system, which includes more than 900 judges statewide.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for me, coming from Covington in Washington County, to be able to join my colleagues on this bench and now to help lead them the next three years,” Karmeier said after taking an oath administered by outgoing Chief Justice Rita Garman during a ceremony lasting just under an hour in the Supreme Court chamber.
Karmeier, who lives in Nashville with his wife, Mary, was joined by his two adult daughters, his six grandchildren, other family, and a roomful of friends and supporters.
Reading from a statement of expectations given to all Illinois judges, Karmeier said: “The public’s expectation that justice will, in fact, be rendered, that every judgment is grounded on the proper application of existing laws to the facts as presented, is vital to engendering confidence in our court system and institutional respect for our judiciary. In meeting this expectation, we strengthen the public trust and build upon our heritage of an honorable and independent judiciary.”
While the statement is relatively new, Karmeier said, “The principles it expresses have guided me throughout my career on the bench.”
“I promise that they will continue to guide me, as I hope they guide every Illinois judge, now as I undertake the responsibilities of chief justice,” he said.
Karmeier, a Republican who become a judge in 1986, received high praise from his fellow justices for his integrity, work ethic, sense of humor and collegiality.
“He respects and honors the traditions of the history of the court,” said Justice Anne Burke, a Chicago Democrat. “He respects and honors his own personal background, and he respects and honors his colleagues. To put it simply, Lloyd Karmeier is the salt of the earth.”
Despite the high praise from his fellow justices, Karmeier has been surrounded by controversy during more than a decade on the high court.
In fact, the controversy started back in 2004, when Karmeier, then resident circuit judge in Washington County, ran for the Supreme Court seat for Illinois’ 5th Judicial District, which stretches from Christian County to the Kentucky border.
The race between Karmeier and Democrat Gordon Maag, then a state appellate judge, brought in more than $9.3 million in campaign contributions, with corporate interests donating heavily to Karmeier and trial lawyers backing Maag.
After Karmeier took his seat on the high court, he participated in two court decisions in 2005 that involved companies opponents say had financial ties to his campaign: insurer State Farm and tobacco company Philip Morris.
Karmeier was part of majority opinions that helped overturn lower court rulings in favor of plaintiffs in a $1 billion class-action lawsuit against State Farm and a $10 billion suit against Philip Morris.
An ongoing federal lawsuit accuses State Farm of bankrolling the 2004 campaign of Karmeier, who isn’t named as a defendant.
The Philip Morris case came back before Illinois’ high court in 2014 while Karmeier was up for a retention vote, and he was once again criticized for declining to recuse himself. A group of trial lawyers bankrolled a last-minute, $2 million ad blitz in an unsuccessful effort to unseat him.
Karmeier didn’t speak to reporters after Monday’s ceremony, but he addressed the controversies in a 2014 court filing in the Philip Morris case.
“When I ran for this office a decade ago, I made only one promise,” he wrote. “It was a promise to the People of Illinois and the voters of the Fifth Judicial District that if elected, I would decide every case free of outside influence and based solely on the law and the facts. I have honored that pledge.”
Perhaps the highest-profile decision Karmeier has written since becoming a justice was the 2015 ruling overturning a pension reform law the General Assembly passed in late 2013. The court ruled unanimously that it violated the pension protection clause of the Illinois Constitution.
State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, who’s been friends with Karmeier for more than six decades and played high school basketball with him, attended the ceremony.
Luechtefeld said Karmeier’s integrity is without question.
“He does what he thinks is right all the time,” Luechtefeld said. “And he’s been that way since he was young.”