Our Commissioner Spotlight series highlights the judges, lawyers, and educators from across Illinois who serve as our Commissioners. The Illinois Supreme Court appoints Commissioners to a three-year term of volunteer service.
These leaders are known for their reputation for professionalism and contributions to the bar and their communities.
This Commissioner Spotlight highlights Judge Bonita Coleman, a judge in the First Judicial Subcircuit of Cook County. Judge Coleman currently serves the Domestic Relations Division in Markham, Illinois.
Judge Coleman has served on the Commission since 2022 and is a member of the Communications and Outreach Committee.
1. Why did you want to become a lawyer?
Simply stated, I became a lawyer because I care about people. I believe in the basic rights and dignity of human beings and have always felt that people are the most important asset on this earth.
Along with that came my desire to be of service to humankind. All people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. All people are entitled to basic human rights, food, shelter, education, and to be free from the ill-treatment of others.
Becoming a lawyer empowered me to make a difference, to be a protector of these rights, and, most of all, to be of service.
2. You recently led first-year law students in the Pledge of Professionalism, in which they promised to uphold the ideals of professionalism throughout their careers. Why do civility and professionalism matter for attorneys?
For the profession of law to maintain the public’s trust, credibility, and integrity, lawyers and judges need to resolve conflicts civilly and professionally.
Irrespective of the negative things said about the legal profession, lawyers and judges are held in high esteem. We are the protectors of the law of the land: our Constitution. We are protectors of human rights. We are problem solvers.
People come to us as a last resource to resolve their conflicts fairly and professionally and without bias. People trust us. Civility and professionalism sustain the public’s trust and confidence.
3. What is the importance of a diverse judiciary that resembles the communities it serves?
A diverse judiciary creates trust and confidence in the communities it serves. People of all ethnicities, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, and races appear before us. As judges, we make decisions that affect the lives of these people each day.
One of the most important duties of a judge is to exercise fairness when rendering decisions based in fact and law. Because we, as a people, are not monolithic in experiences and thought, determining what’s fair requires knowledge, sensitivity, and sometimes experience.
Diversity offers unique ideas and perspectives. When diversity does not exist, those who are not represented or underrepresented lack faith, trust, and confidence that their interests will be served and/or protected.
To be effective as a jurist, we must have the confidence and trust of the communities in which we serve.
4. As a past president of the Illinois Judicial Council (IJC), you focused on the mental health and well-being challenges of judges. What are the biggest mental health challenges impacting judges?
Stress, which leads to many illnesses, is the biggest mental health challenge impacting judges. Judges can be perceived to sit in powerful positions of authority simply rendering decisions with ease, but that is far from the truth. Being a judge is a large and awesome undertaking. Our decisions change the course of people’s lives and rendering such decisions isn’t taken lightly.
My term as President of the Illinois Judicial Council began in August 2021, approximately 17 months since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The world had begun to reopen, however, people were still fearful of contracting the virus.
Masks were mandated to be worn in public. Social distancing continued. We were trying to return to some level of normalcy and adjust to a new norm. Part of that adjustment required us to deal with the adverse effects of COVID-19, like a lack of human contact and social interaction; grief resulting from the loss of family, friends, and loved ones; high stress levels; and an economic downturn that impacted so many. Judges suffered the same as everyone else.
As President, my goal was to create a safe space for judges to address their mental and physical health challenges, particularly resulting from the pandemic. We brought in a renowned psychologist to provide techniques for addressing stress in and out of court, had medical doctors educate us on the effects of stress on our physical health, and benefitted from education regarding breast and prostate cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
The profession can help today by simply recognizing that though we are judges, we are human beings too. We encounter the same challenges as everyone else.
5. With the IJC, you also focused on closing the generational gap on the bench by connecting judges from different generations. Why is this important?
Closing the generation gap promotes civility among judges and lawyers, our knowledge base becomes broader, and more experienced judges and younger judges learn to respect the variety of ways we can administer justice and promote fairness in the legal profession.
Before ascending to the bench, I practiced law for 18 years. Thirty-one years have passed since I graduated from law school; some of today’s lawyers weren’t even born yet. This reality is difficult to wrap my brain around at times.
When I began law school, computer research was in its infantile stage. Cellular telephones weren’t widely used or available. Legal research was primarily done in the law library by reading law books. If a book wasn’t available, we had to await its return to the library.
Technology has brought about significant changes in the legal profession. Today, laptops, tablets, and mobile phones are commonly used to conduct legal research. And just like technology, judges’ attitudes and perspectives have changed too.
Young judges have unique and newer approaches to problem-solving, which oftentimes differ from more seasoned judges.
Experienced lawyers and judges are sometimes resistant to change. Technology, just like math, can be intimidating and everyone believes that their way is the better. Consequently, conflict arises and causes division.
My goal as President was to be instrumental in closing the generational gap by lessening the conflict, widening our knowledge base, and making the younger judges feel welcome. After all, they are the future of the legal profession.
6. What advice would you give people who aspire to become judges?
Reputation is key to a successful and prosperous career in the legal profession. Your reputation for fairness, civility, integrity, diligence, credibility, and professionalism equals trustworthiness, effectiveness, and prosperity.
When people trust and believe in you, they will invest in you. That investment comes in the form of promotions, appointments, and financial gain. Safeguard your reputation as a lawyer, and your aspiration to become a judge will become a reality.
Our Commissioner Spotlights recognize the judges, lawyers, and educators from across Illinois who serve as our Commissioners. Check out more interviews with our current and past Commissioners here.