The Journal of The DuPage County Bar Association

Back Issues > Vol. 13 (2000-01)

Bob Thomas—A New Voice on the Illinois Supreme Court
By G. Christopher Slick

On December 4, 2000, the Honorable Bob Thomas will be sworn in to the Supreme Court of Illinois. After winning a hard-fought primary election in March and then prevailing in the general election, Justice Thomas will now assume the seat vacated in 1998 by former Justice John L. Nickels of St. Charles. In assuming his new role, Justice Thomas will vacate his seat on the Illinois Appellate Court, Second District, where he has served for the past six years. For those who practice law in the Second District, Justice Thomas is probably no stranger. However, he is not a stranger among the laity, either, although, for those within the legal profession as well as those outside it, Justice Thomas may be better known for what he accomplished in his first vocation—football.

In January of 1974, Bob Thomas was a senior at the University of Notre Dame. For the preceding four years, he had been a kicker for the Fighting Irish under the tutelage of one of its most renowned coaches, Ara Parseghian, winner of two national championships for Notre Dame. Notre Dame’s impressive performance during the 1973 football season placed it among the top three teams in the nation (all of which were undefeated). At the top of the rankings, however, was the University of Alabama, coached by the legendary Bear Bryant. After the regular season ended, Notre Dame and Alabama were matched up in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. At the end of the game, the score was 23-21, and Alabama was leading. With time running out, Bob Thomas stepped up to attempt a field goal. The ball was snapped, Thomas kicked, and the ball sailed through the uprights, giving Notre Dame the victory over the Crimson Tide while capturing for the Irish the title of National Champion. For those who watched the game on television, it was an unforgettable moment.

After he graduated from Notre Dame, Thomas went on to play professional football for Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears where he became the third leading scorer in the team’s history. To many Bears fans in the Chicago area, Thomas is a familiar figure. In fact, while running for circuit court judge in 1988, Thomas encountered a man in a local grocery store who had a curious question for the soon-to-be circuit court judge. "Can I ask you a question?" the man asked. Thomas said, "Sure," and the man replied, "Didn’t you use to be Bob Thomas?" With such a storied past, it is not hard to believe that for many people, Thomas will always be better known for what he accomplished on the football field.

However, even while he was scoring field goals for the Fighting Irish and then for the Bears, Thomas was setting a solid groundwork for his future legal career. At the same time that he was enduring the rigorous training schedule demanded of him by Coach Parseghian at Notre Dame, Bob Thomas was distinguishing himself in the classroom. While at Notre Dame, Thomas was an Academic All-American and a member of the Dean’s List. Later, while playing for the Bears, Thomas attended law school at Loyola. After he graduated from law school, Thomas applied to take the Illinois bar exam. His law school classmates were studying fourteen hours a day for the bar, but Thomas was attending training camp in Lake Forest and could only afford to study for two hours each day. In spite of his schedule, Thomas had no trouble passing the bar on his first attempt.

Thomas is not alone in his journey from the gridiron to the high court bench. Another football player who has paralleled Thomas’s progression is Alan Page. Page was a defensive tackle for Notre Dame in the mid-1960’s. When he graduated from Notre Dame in 1967, Page went on to play for the Minnesota Vikings and later for the Chicago Bears. In fact, when Page came to play for the Bears at the end of his career, he played alongside Thomas. He was later inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1988. Like Thomas, however, it was not enough for Page to simply have a successful football career behind him. Page attended the University of Minnesota law school and graduated in 1978. After serving as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Minnesota, Page went on to be elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1993. Interestingly, Page and Thomas still keep in contact following their short time together while playing for the Bears.

After graduating from law school in 1981, Thomas went on to work in private practice for seven years. Even though he was always a zealous advocate for his client’s interests, Thomas never became so strident that his vision became clouded. Thomas realized that the most effective representation of a client’s interests always included a fair, objective determination of the merits of the case at the outset. In fact, it was one of Thomas’s colleagues in private practice who pointed out this quality to Thomas and remarked on how well-suited he was for serving on the bench. Thomas took the advice to heart and ran for the Circuit Court for the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit in DuPage County in 1988. He would later be elected to the appellate court and now, of course, to the highest court in Illinois.

When Justice Thomas assumes his seat on the Illinois Supreme Court, he will take with him the experience that he has garnered from 12 years of service on the bench. One of the lessons Thomas has learned is the need to "develop a collegial atmosphere" among his peers. Because appeals are decided by a three-judge panel, the decision-making process always involves some level of consensus and agreement. For this reason, Thomas realized that the best way to arrive at a well-reasoned, fair decision was to first have a good working relationship with the other justices on the court. Because Thomas believes that "the exposition of the law is an exercise in reason and not emotion," he realized that any personal bickering among his peers might eventually find its way into the decision-making process and, in his words, "result in a devolution in that process." Thomas believes that "such a result would be unfortunate, not only for the parties involved, who must live with the decision, but with the public at large, which relies on its courts to render sound, consistent opinions grounded firmly in reason." While serving on the appellate court, Thomas has striven to establish a relationship with his fellow justices that best serves the interests of the parties and citizens whom he serves.

As he ascends to the Supreme Court, Thomas intends to bring this spirit of collegiality with him. Thomas has noticed that "some recent decisions from the supreme court have evidenced a partisan, strident tone that seems to reflect a lack of collegiality on the high court bench." Thomas sees this development as an unfortunate phase in the supreme court’s history. When he speaks at various legal seminars, Thomas says that he often emphasizes "the importance of civility among legal practitioners." When he assumes his seat on the supreme court bench, he intends to establish the kind of working relationship with his six colleagues that will result in a "sober, fair, and rational decision-making process." Thomas’s hope is to engender an atmosphere of "professionalism, civility, and collegiality" on the court.

Of course, Thomas expects that there will be differences on the court in many of the cases that come before it. However, he hopes that these differences will be "restricted to the jurisprudential realm and not result from personal animosity among the justices." To be sure, Thomas has his own vision of how the law should be interpreted. For Thomas, the bench is "not a place to legislate or impose policy directives." On the contrary, Thomas believes that policy decisions are "best left to the people and their representatives in Springfield." Thomas’s motto in this respect is that of the Founding Fathers—that the judiciary should be the branch of government which is "the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution"—a branch which "can take no active resolution whatever" and "may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment."1 Implicit in this evaluation of the proper role of the judiciary is the understanding that "judges are not lawgivers"; rather, they "merely enforce the duly enacted policy judgments of the other branches." Thomas observes, however, that even when courts are construing a statute or a constitution, their decision "can too often be simply a policy judgment couched as law." In spite of his desire to restrain this impulse, Thomas firmly believes that the "constitutional borders established by the people should be defended in the face of impositions by the various organs of government." But from Thomas’s perspective, the constitutional borders that exist are only "those which were created by the people in the first place." Thomas believes that whether he is interpreting a statute or a constitution, it is the "sovereign will of the people" he is enforcing, rather than his own "personal predilections and preferences."

As supreme court justice from Illinois’s Second District, Thomas will inherit many administrative responsibilities that are incumbent with that office. For example, Thomas will be in charge of appointing new circuit court and appellate court justices in the Second District when a vacancy occurs. In making these appointments, Thomas intends to choose only the "best and brightest lawyers to serve on the bench." Although these appointees must ultimately face a popular election, Thomas understands that few voters familiarize themselves with the credentials of judicial candidates before stepping into the voting booth. For this reason, Thomas intends to make his selections only after careful consideration of a candidate’s qualifications so that "when that appointee is up for election, the voting public can be assured that the incumbent judge or justice for whom they vote is the best suited for the position."

Thomas also believes that it is important not to ignore the needs of the circuit courts. He hopes he can avoid a situation in which the rules established by the supreme court, over time, "become an anachronism." For this reason, Thomas intends to meet on a regular basis with the judges and chief judges of the various circuit courts spread among the 13 counties of the Second District so that he can evaluate their needs and concerns. By doing so, Thomas hopes to be "the voice of the Second District" so that the needs of the district do not go unaddressed. He hopes that this approach will create a situation in which the circuit courts are able to function more efficiently.

Another top priority for Thomas is the encouragement of arbitration and alternative dispute resolution in Illinois. Thomas also hopes to promote a system of mandatory legal and judicial education in Illinois so that the state’s lawyers and judges are well-informed on the constant changes that are occurring in the legal arena.

All in all, Justice Bob Thomas intends to be a fair, impartial supreme court justice who will work to "ensure that the interests of the citizens of the Second District are not neglected." He will also endeavor to "dispense justice, not just for the litigants who come before the supreme court," but perhaps more importantly, "for the people of the State of Illinois who must ultimately live with the court’s decisions once they are rendered."

Mr. Slick was recently appointed as a Supreme Court law clerk for Justice Bob Thomas. For the last two years, he has served as an Assistant Attorney General in the Division of Civil Appeals. He earned his B.A. degree from Baylor University in 1993 and his J.D. degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1997.

DCBA Brief