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Retiring Lake County judge broke the glass ceiling
By Tony Gordon | Daily Herald Staff

Lake County circuit court Judge Jane Waller is retiring this month.


Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/15/2008 12:07 AM

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As Michelle Obama is making plans for her new role in life starting next month, the "first lady" of the 19th Judicial Circuit has hung up her gavel.

Jane Drew Waller retired recently after 27 years of leading the way, both for her gender and for the court system in general.

In the 19th Circuit, Waller was the first woman associate judge, first woman circuit judge, first woman presiding judge, first woman chief judge and first woman president of the bar association.

"I had the advantage of being there when women were beginning to assert themselves in the legal profession," said Waller, 62. "It was quite a departure from when I started and women were still something of an oddity in the courtrooms."

Armed with college degrees from Trinity University in Washington, D.C. and Northwestern University, Waller taught school for two years before entering the University of Illinois Law School in 1970.

In addition to her studies, Waller became acquainted there with the anti-war movement and her future husband, State's Attorney Michael Waller.

After graduation, she joined her father's law practice in Waukegan where she stayed until her appointment to the bench in 1981.

Promoted to circuit judge in 1996, Waller eventually became presiding judge of the family law division where she stayed except for a two-year term as chief circuit judge from 2000 until 2002.

Family law - where divorces and child custody matters fraught with passion and heartbreak are settled - can strain the most steeled of personalities.

But Waller gained a reputation as a judge who looked beyond the circumstances and the application of the law and saw real people in her courtroom.

"She demonstrated compassion and concern," said Thomas Gurewitz, chairman of the Lake County Bar Association's Family Law committee.

"She not only tried to do what was right, but genuinely cared about the litigants standing before her."

Her concern for people led her to introduce a host of innovation in court services and operations as well, including psychological evaluations for parents in child custody disputes. She also worked with the College of Lake County to develop parenting classes for all divorcing couples with children.

Waller also established the first children's waiting room in a court facility in the state, and Kid's Korner has served more than 30,000 children since it was opened to spare young ones from the at times traumatic experience of courtrooms.

"I looked at the family law courtrooms as problem-solving courtrooms," she said. "We were there, first and foremost, to find out what the problems were and to help people overcome them."

Through it all, Waller said she used a simple guidance system.

"I used to say a prayer every day before I took the bench," she said. "I would ask God to allow me to do what was right and make me be fair."

The trail she blazed on to the bench and into upper management has become well-worn over the years.

The National Association of Women Judges says 267 women now sit on the bench in Illinois, 26 percent of the 1,016 total judges in the state.

In Lake County, Waller was one of 10 female judges out of the total of 35. She'll be replaced by another woman, Judge Diane Winter, who was elevated by the state Supreme Court. Two women judges appointed to the bench after Waller - Barbara Gilleran Johnson and Mary Seminara Schostok - went on to appointments on the appellate court.

"If it was difficult to be the first at everything, Jane never let on," Circuit Judge Margaret Mullen said at a retirement function for Waller.

"And the quality of her service made it easier for those who followed her."