A graduate of Bradley University and the Loyola School of Law, Judge Jerelyn Maher commenced practicing law in the Peoria area, becoming one of the first women in the area to concentrate in trial work. In 1995, she was appointed associate judge of the Tenth Judicial Circuit, and in 2001, she was appointed to fill a vacancy, becoming the first woman circuit judge of the Tenth Judicial Circuit. Currently, Judge Maher is the presiding judge in the Domestic Relations Court in Peoria County hearing divorce, domestic violence, adoption and mental health commitment cases.
Maher was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to the Judicial Conference and assigned to the Judicial Education Committee. She is on the faculty of the New Judge School and the Educational Conference, held for the state’s judges every two years. She was one of three judges who created the Illinois Advanced Judicial Academy, and has served on its committee since 2001. In addition to other committee assignments, Judge Maher serves on two subcommittees for judicial education: the editorial board of the publication committee and the faculty development committee. She is also very proud of her work in creating the Visitation Center for the Tenth Judicial Circuit.
An active author and lecturer, Maher is currently the chair of the Family Violence Coordinating Council for the Tenth Judicial Circuit and was recognized for her work in preventing domestic violence with the Partners in Peace award in 2002. Maher has been active in numerous professional organizations, currently donating her time to the Illinois State Bar Association, Peoria Bar Association, Illinois Judges Association and Abraham Lincoln Inns of Court.
Tell us about your educational background, family, etc.
I am the youngest of three children; we were each born eight years apart. I am extremely proud of my parents, Ralph and Eleanor Maher, now both deceased. My mother died shortly after they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. My oldest brother, Bernard, died in 2000, and my other brother, Earl, lives in Pekin and remains my best friend. We still manage to get into mischief! Both of my brothers were my best friends and I have the name Jerelyn because Bernie took a liking to a girl named Jerelyn. When I was born—shall we say I was a midlife “whoops,” Dad called home from the hospital to announce a girl was born. In those days the sex of the baby was not usually known, and both of my parents expected another boy. Thus, no name for a girl was discussed. Bernie said there was a girl at school he liked and her name was Jerelyn. So I was named Jerelyn. He ultimately married the other Jerelyn, and until September 3rd, 2006, when I married John Schulz, there were two Jerelyn Mahers! My husband is an engineer and self-employed consultant.
I graduated from Tremont High School in 1970. In 1974, I graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Bradley University. I received my juris doctorate degree from Loyola School of Law in Chicago in 1977 and became licensed to practice law that same year. Before being appointed an associate judge in August 1995, I was a trial attorney. In my early career, I practiced in nearly all areas of trial work but soon concentrated my practice in cases involving personal injury regardless of origin of the injury (e.g. medical malpractice, products liability, workers compensation, premises liability, automobile collisions). I handled appeals of these cases, arguing in the state appellate court, Illinois Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
What are your duties as an associate judge of the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Illinois?
My duties are multiple, given the number of years I have been on the bench. I have been fortunate in that I have handled cases which have arisen from all of the courtrooms in the Tenth Judicial Circuit. I have been certified in the past to preside over death penalty cases.
Strictly as a judge, my job is to hear cases in whatever courtroom I am assigned and make a prompt and fair ruling according to the law and evidence. At any given time, due to a judge being ill, a conflict or our dockets being overcrowded, I can perform the duties of any courtroom. For example, I may do bonding court if one of my cases has settled. Also, I am on call for Tazewell County for search warrants or other emergencies that occur after 5pm and before 9am, and at least once a month, I bond prisoners on weekends. In light of constitutional issues, no one charged with a crime can be held more than 48 hours without seeing a judge and setting bond. The latter includes holidays, and it is not unusual to spend Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or other holidays at the jail bonding people charged with crimes. The law has no holidays.
Many of my other duties are by virtue of appointments I have received from the Supreme Court of Illinois. I am a member of the Education Committee of the Illinois Courts. It is our job to educate both new and experienced judges of the state. I have been very active in preparing policy, seminars, and particularly writing and teaching. I am currently a member of several subcommittees, which include teaching all new judges who are elected or appointed to the bench each year. I have done this for several years and enjoy the excitement generated by the new judges. I am on the faculty of the Education Conference—a seminar all judges must attend every two years as a form of continuing education. I recently planned and was on the faculty of a judicial seminar on the cutting-edge of family law issues, including artificial insemination, abortion consents for minors and same-sex relationships.
I am particularly proud of being on the editorial board which has been charged by the Illinois Supreme Court with developing judicial bench books in six areas of the law. In addition to being a member of the board, I am the editor of the family law bench book.
The latest appointment I have received is to the Illinois Supreme Court’s Special Committee on Judicial Performance. This committee is studying how we can better develop evaluation of our judges’ performance and improve the quality of the bench. At this point, evaluation is voluntary, and I have been evaluated twice. Each time, I gained great insight into my performance, and I am a great advocate of having the process refined and being made mandatory by the Illinois Supreme Court.
What spurred your interest and involvement in the areas of family law, domestic violence, child custody and child abuse?
I view the judiciary as a position of being a public servant. The robe is not meant to feed one’s ego, but is a source of responsibility. It provides an excellent opportunity to do good for those people who come before you at the bench, as well as in the community. Of course, as a judge doing good, it must always be done in the spirit of judicial independence. I am not a legislator, police officer or representative of the executive branch. My job is to be highly prepared for the cases that come before me and to apply the law to the evidence of each case. However, it is also part of my job to do this in such a way that educates the litigants of the process, treating them with dignity and fairness. In my opinion, that is the best way to do good from the bench.
How did being a woman affect your career path, if at all?
My mother graduated from the Academy of Our Lady in 1929 and wanted to go to college in the worst way. Unfortunately, she was the oldest daughter in a family of nine, and then the depression hit. Consequently, she lost her opportunity to go to college, but never lost her thirst for knowledge. In many ways she was a woman way ahead of her time. My father had an eighth-grade education but had to go to work instead of school because of his family’s economic position. Nevertheless, before he retired from CILCO after 43 years, he had worked himself to the position of manager of gas operations.
Both my parents and my brothers always made it clear to me that being a woman was not an acceptable reason for my not doing whatever I wanted to do. It may be a barrier, but is not insurmountable with hard, honest work. My family was my greatest cheerleader.
When I started to practice, there were not very many trial lawyers who were women. I learned very quickly that the best way for my opponent NOT to make an issue of my being a woman was simply to beat him in court. After awhile it became clear to me that if you do your job well, your gender will not be an issue. I like to say I am a judge who happens to be a woman.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part of my job is trying to help people understand judicial independence. Our system may not be perfect, but it is the best in the world that I am aware of. I have had the wonderful opportunity to work with Judge Mihm when the Russian judges were here in 2001. [Several prominent Russian judges visited Peoria to study the U.S. justice system and meet with their American counterparts as part of a leadership exchange program.] They do not enjoy judicial independence. We have the luxury of administering the law fairly without regard to public reaction. The Russian judges must be fearful of their decisions to the point of losing their life, even if the decision is a correct one. Obviously, we must make decisions that sometimes, shall we say, “do not play to the press,” but they are decisions mandated by the application of the Constitution.
When we became judges, we took an oath to follow and uphold the Constitution—a Constitution that applies to EVERY American. The most succinct way of putting it is that most of the public wants you to throw the book at the guy unless it is them or their family. If we are good judges, we never throw the book at anyone unless it is required by a fair application of the law and evidence, and not our own personal biases. There are times when I do not like my own decisions, but when I take the bench, I have no agenda but to apply the law with fairness and dignity to the evidence presented. The most challenging part of my job is making people understand this duty. Are there many areas in leadership positions where there are still no women, and yet, many are qualified? Yes. We must continue to strive to break those glass ceilings. I gladly accept the responsibility of making those inroads based on ability.
Cases of juvenile abuse and neglect are widely recognized as some of the most emotionally draining assignments for judges. Have you found this to be true in your personal experience?
YES! My years in juvenile abuse and neglect were the most difficult of my judicial career—and the most rewarding. Many times, you stand between a child and death or serious physical harm; yet during this time, you must stand firm to your commitment to uphold the law and the Constitution. I presided over hundreds of terminations of parental rights cases freeing children from abuse and allowing them to be adopted into loving, safe homes. During that process, unfortunately, I had to view pictures of other children who died or were horribly injured at the hands of a parent or paramour. Those pictures will never be erased from my mind.
How did you come to chair the Family Violence Coordinating Council for the Tenth Judicial Court?
Much of the heavy lifting is done by Mary Taylor. The main job of the council is to partner with as many individuals and social agencies as we can to educate and prevent domestic violence. Two projects I am extremely proud of overseeing are the elder awareness program and the school instruction. The first was done with enormous help from SeniorStrength. We created a program to teach judges how difficult it is for elderly people to come into the courtroom. Unfortunately, our elderly are one of the largest groups of victims of domestic violence by either their caretakers or family. They are afraid to come to court, and their infirmities make that fear even more compounded. So, we trained each and every judge what it was like to have hearing and eyesight difficulties. We had them experience how difficult it was to reach their courts with walkers and quad canes, etc. The program met with such success that it has been duplicated in other circuits.
The other program I am proud of is teaching educators about the signs of violence against children and how to report it to the proper authorities. We do hope to get to every teacher, school bus driver, cafeteria worker, etc., as they are the people who spend a great deal of time with our children and have the best opportunity to detect violence against that child.
Please explain how the Visitation Center for the Tenth Judicial Circuit came about and what services if offers families in custody battles. How has partnering with Bradley University helped the success of this center?
It was no secret that I had been advocating the creation of a place where we could not only allow parents to exchange children for visitation in a safe environment, but also receive education on how to keep their violence out of the children’s lives. Thanks to some Illinois grant money, we went to work.
I wanted a visitation center that not only served to exchange children in safety, but also provide a place for supervised visitation. In my opinion, to do this successfully required a clinical side as well as a legal side. Bradley University, with Dr. Etaugh taking the initiative, agreed to partner with us and we developed one of the prototypes for visitation centers around the state, particularly because of the clinical model created by Bradley.
With relationship breakups, there are often very hurt feelings which spill over and catch children in the middle during visitation time. The center’s sole purpose is to provide a place for children to be exchanged during court-ordered visitation time or see a parent and establish a healthy relationship so the children do not grow up to do what their parents did. It must be understood that the center is only for the convenience of the parties and was never intended to be used by parents to bolster legal cases. Rather, it was meant to keep the children free of that agenda, and hopefully help the parents learn to put the children’s best interests first.
Please give a brief summary and goals of the family mediation program you helped initiate at Bradley. As a coordinator of this program, what is your role in helping couples resolve custody and visitation issues?
The Illinois Supreme Court created a special committee to study child custody and visitation issues. Out of that committee, the Court adopted a series of Supreme Court Rules. One required mediation of all custody and visitation issues before a trial on those issues unless there was a very good reason for excusing it. The Tenth did not have mandatory mediation. Before the rules were enacted, we had very few cases that were being mediated voluntarily; however, we were faced with not only developing a plan, but also implementing it in a very short time.
Judge Barra named me the judicial coordinator for the project. Again, I went to Bradley for assistance as the University has always been open to partnering with the judiciary for the good of the courts, and thus, the community. I was put in contact with Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin, and we put a teaching team together. We now have over 50 certified mediators in the Tenth Circuit. We also implemented a plan to scrutinize the credentials of those who did not attend the Bradley program and desired to be a mediator in our circuit. The list can be found at the Peoria County website under the Family Law section. The whole group of rules were implemented by the Supreme Court with the recognition that the courtroom is not a good place for children. If mediation fails, we have very stringent rules to protect children and give these cases priority. I was particularly glad to see that children’s issues finally got top billing.
When you speak at Bradley or to other groups, are there one or two ideas that you hope listeners will take to heart?
One is judicial independence, which I described above. Another is that the courts cannot answer all of society’s problems in the same way we did years ago. We have to be receptive to creative methods of dealing with today’s legal problems. Thus, I am a big advocate of specialty courts, sometimes called therapeutic courts. For example, adult drug court is a great success in Peoria County, but it takes a different judicial mindset than we had twenty or thirty years ago.
Why was it important to create the position of Guardian Ad Litem for Tazewell County?
It is important in every county, but we were fortunate that the Tazewell County Board was willing to deal with a current legal problem in a different way than we did years ago. The program is framed in such a way that any child who is either named a victim or is going to be a witness in a domestic violence case at the judge’s discretion can have an attorney named whose sole purpose is to act in their best interest. Currently, that position is held in Tazewell County by Katherine Smith Thornton. Many times, parents seek orders of protection for motives unrelated to the Domestic Violence Act, and many times, they seek orders of protection because a child is being abused. In either situation, that child’s little voice should be heard by the court and not be dependent on someone with an improper agenda or someone who cannot afford a lawyer. It is simply another reflection of my philosophy— the courtroom should be a level playing field for everyone, regardless of race, creed, color, gender, age or economic status.
You received a 100 percent approval rating from the lawyers who evaluated you. How do you manage to implement new ideas into the legal system while maintaining such high esteem in the legal community?
That was quite an honor! We are evaluated every four years for retention, and when we run for election. I have always scored well into the 90th percentile. I have been on the bench for over 12 years now, and have run for election. Therefore, I am sure I have made someone think somewhat less than 100 percent of me!
Seriously, I think the lawyers know that I will be courteous to them, listen to them, be prepared and fair. I may not rule for their clients, but they understand that my goal is to make sure everyone leaves my courtroom understanding why I did what I did. I have continually devoted myself to helping with lawyer education and have been active in the Peoria Bar and Illinois Bar Association. I do not believe that a judge should show any favoritism toward any lawyer, but I also believe judges should never forget that they were lawyers once.
What do you like to do in your personal time?
I love spending time with my husband. All that newlywed stuff aside, it was great to find someone at my age who is brilliant, compassionate, my biggest cheerleader and a city boy who believes all my farmer stories! We do love the outdoors, nature and animals. We have three dogs. Our house is run by John’s yorkie and my old lab; we adopted a lab who flunked out of school for “being distracted by play.”
I greatly enjoy just having fun; coming from an Irish family, there is a wee bit of leprechaun in me—just ask my friends. I just started learning the guitar, my only positive critic is John’s 15-year-old cat who lives in my music room. Taking care of 11 acres with John is great relaxation.
I would be remiss to not mention my big passion—Green Bay Packers football. My old lab has the honor of wearing the Green Bay collar. Family and friends are a very important part of my life, and there is an open-door policy in our home. TPW