Chief Justice Anne Burke to retire from Illinois Supreme Court

By Jerry Nowicki Capitol News Illinois

Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne M. Burke, left, is pictured in her official court photo. At right is Appellate Justice Joy V. Cunningham, who will replace her. (Photos courtesy of Illinois courts).

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne M. Burke announced Monday she will retire from the bench effective Nov. 30.

She has served on the state’s high court since 2006 and has been chief justice since 2019.

“The decision to retire was not an easy one,” Burke, a Democrat, said in a statement. “However, after having been blessed to serve as a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court for the past 16 years, and as chief justice for the past three years, the race has been run and it is time to pass the gavel to a successor.”

Burke, the court’s third female justice, will be replaced by 1st District Appellate Justice Joy V. Cunningham, who will follow current Justice Lisa Holder White as the second Black woman seated on the court. Holder White was seated earlier this year. The court has constitutional authority to choose interim successors.

Burke was born in Chicago in 1944 and raised on the city’s south side. She attended DePaul University School for New Learning and majored in education. She began her career teaching physical education at the Chicago Park District.

She volunteered for a park district program teaching sports to children with mental and physical disabilities which, she said in an exit letter, inspired her to propose “a citywide competition as a way for these special children and young adults to showcase their abilities and love of competition.”

It grew into the Chicago Special Olympics which eventually gave way to the International Special Olympics that brings together athletes from 192 nations.

In her effort to organize the event, she said she was told by Eunice Shriver Kennedy to “think bigger.”

“Those words and my husband, Ed’s encouragement, inspired me to return to college at DePaul University, where I graduated with a degree in education. I then enrolled at Chicago-Kent College of Law,” she said.

She was 40 years old and a mother of four when she completed law school and started at a small practice serving families and as a guardian for children who could not represent themselves in litigation.

In 1987 Republican Gov. Jim Thompson appointed her the first female judge on the Illinois Court of Claims, and she was reappointed to the post by Republican Gov. Jim Edgar in 1991. In April 1994, she was appointed special counsel to the governor for child welfare services, and in 1995 she was appointed to the 1st District appellate court, being elected for a full term the following year.

The news release announcing her departure highlighted her work navigating the courts through the COVID-19 pandemic and moving statewide “listening tours” organized by the Illinois State Bar Association online.

“I have always believed that the nearly 12 years I spent as a justice of the Appellate Court and the 16 years I have served on the Supreme Court have been a continuation of my core desire to speak for those who have no voice of their own and to improve the lives of all of the citizens of the state,” Burke said in her letter.

She thanked constituents of the 1st District and her family.

“I thank, first and foremost, my family – my husband, Ed, who has been at my side through 54 years of marriage, and our children, Jennifer, Ed Jr., Emmett (deceased), Sarah, and Travis, and our nine grandchildren – for the sacrifices they have made for me and for being constant sources of love and encouragement,” she said.

Burke’s husband, Ed Burke, a longtime alderman in Chicago, was for years considered one of the body’s powerbrokers as chair of the Committee on Finance. He was seated on the council in 1969, most recently gaining reelection in 2019 despite having been charged with extortion and racketeering that year.

Prosecutors alleged that Burke attempted to use his city position to solicit business for his law firm, Klafter & Burke, although he has denied wrongdoing and remains on the council despite stepping down from the finance committee and his law firm in 2019.

Cunningham, Justice Burke’s replacement, will not be the next chief justice, a rotating post that is generally given to the most tenured justice who has not yet held the title. Burke’s term as chief justice was scheduled to end Oct. 25.

The court later Monday announced Justice Mary Jane Theis, a 1st District Democrat who has been on the high court since 2010, as the next chief justice. She’ll be on 1st District ballot in November when voters choose whether to give her another 10-year term.

Cunningham has been on the appellate court since 2006 and serves on its executive committee. She received her Bachelor of Science from the City University of New York and earned her Juris Doctorate from the John Marshall Law School.

Cunningham was sworn in as an associate judge in Cook County Circuit Court in 1996 before leaving the bench in 2000 to serve as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at Northwestern Memorial Healthcare. In December 2006 she was elected to the 1st District appellate court and was retained by voters in 2016.

Due to the timing of Burke’s retirement after the November election, Cunningham’s interim term will run through Dec. 2, 2024, at which time a successor will be given a 10-year term by voters in the general election the month prior.

The Supreme Court has seven judges elected in five districts. District 1, which includes Chicago and some of its surrounding areas, has three justices, while the remaining four districts each have one. All 1st District justices are Democrats, making up the biggest chunk of the court’s 4-3 Democratic majority.

In this November’s election, voters will grant a 10-year term to two justices, one in the 2nd district, which includes Chicago’s north and west suburbs, and one in the 3rd District, which runs from the state’s northern tip to south of Springfield, encompassing most of northwestern and west central Illinois.

Those contested races could affect the partisan makeup of the court.