December 18, 2018
The following is a lightly-edited version of remarks delivered by Chief Justice Karmeier at the 2018 Unity Award Dinner held by the Diversity Scholarship Foundation (DSF) in Chicago on November 27, 2018. DSF is a not-for-profit organization that provides scholarships to diverse and deserving law students, offers free continuing legal education seminars, and conducts a variety of other programs aimed at promoting diversity within the legal community. Chief Justice Karmeier was this year’s recipient of the organization’s annual Unity Award.
At a time when so many struggle, I am always mindful of how truly blessed I have been throughout my lifetime.
I grew up in simpler times on a small farm in Southern Illinois, in a small German Lutheran community where my parents and grandparents often spoke German as their first language, at least until the onset of World War II.
I am the middle child of five, born to parents who instilled in us a good work ethic and encouraged us to get a higher education, even though neither of them even had a high school education.
I was blessed that when I attended college, the costs were much different – tuition and fees at the University of Illinois were only $110 per semester. In addition, my siblings and I were fortunate to receive Illinois State or other scholarships. Together, the low tuition and scholarship aid made college affordable and enabled us to attend. And because I was able to go to college and then law school, I eventually became privileged and blessed to serve with my colleagues on the Supreme Court of Illinois. They made this evening possible for me. While I am being recognized tonight for the recent Supreme Court rule changes requiring diversity and inclusion as part of our professional ethics and continuing education requirements, that important step forward is something for which every member of the Court deserves credit.
I have truly been blessed. And I was most blessed because it was at the University of Illinois where I met Mary who would become and has now been my wife for over 53 years – and she is here with me tonight, as she always is.
Reflecting on these blessings and the opportunity I had to attend college and law school, I truly appreciate what the Diversity Scholarship Foundation has done over the years and what it is doing here again tonight in awarding these scholarships. And I appreciate that so many of you have come out to show your continuing support for this wonderful program, in this beautiful venue, in this beautiful city.
It is truly a privilege to be here this evening—and an honor to receive this award.
For anyone genuinely committed to the promise of equal justice under law, encouraging diversity and inclusion in the legal profession must be a priority.
If our profession fails to reflect the richness and diversity of the community we purport to serve, we cannot hope to command the community’s trust and confidence. If we are not representative of society as a whole, we lay ourselves open to the charge that we exist to serve only some and not all.
The simple truth is that people in need will not turn to the legal system for help if, when they look at us, they are unable to see some reflection of themselves: their culture, their skin color, their religion, their gender identity, their ethnicity. If we are to be for them, we must also be of them.
This is not a matter of optics. It is a question of substance. Our legal system is nothing if it cannot fully and fairly mediate the rights, obligations and needs of everyone subject to its rules. Because we are an extremely diverse society – and becoming more so with each passing year – it is imperative that we have lawyers and judges of similarly diverse backgrounds to help interpret and fashion the law. It is only when all perspectives are represented and all points of view have been heard that our legal system can deliver on its promise of full, fair and efficient justice for all.
The Illinois Supreme Court has attempted to foster these goals through its Committee on Equality, its requirement for training on diversity and inclusion, its study of implicit bias in judicial decision making, and its efforts to add breadth and depth to the numerous special committees it utilizes, the employees it hires and the judges it appoints. Real and lasting progress, however, requires a unified effort at every level and in every segment of our profession.
The Diversity Scholarship Foundation is a model for how that can be achieved. By providing support to organizations representing a broad spectrum of under-represented groups and sectors within the legal community, through its respected educational outreach programs, and by providing scholarship support to deserving and diverse law students from across the geographical boundaries of the 7th Circuit, the Diversity Scholarship Foundation is laying the critical foundation for a fundamental transformation of our profession. The tent is a big one and needs to be. The Diversity Scholarship Foundation is helping to insure that everyone can find their way in – and that when they get here, they will be welcomed.
On behalf of the entire Supreme Court, I would like to offer our deepest thanks and respect to all of the bar association presidents who have come here tonight to pledge to help diversify the legal community. Thanks as well to the Advocates for Diversity recipients for the leadership you have taken in advancing this cause and the inspiration you have given others to follow your path. And most importantly, congratulations to the all of the students who will be receiving scholarships this evening. That you have been selected for this recognition is testament to your extraordinary abilities and the promise you hold for helping advance the goals of equality for all – understanding for all – and justice for all. You represent the next generation of our profession. We are looking to you to help lead the way forward, repudiating divisiveness and embracing inclusion. I have every confidence that you will succeed.
Thank you again.