Mary Ann McMorrow, 1st female state Supreme Court Justice dies

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When Mary Ann McMorrow was a Cook County assistant state's attorney, a supervisor told her that a male colleague would argue the points in a legal brief that she prepared for the Illinois Supreme Court.

Women just didn't go in front of such high-ranking judges, the male supervisor said.

But she didn't let the setback stop her. She would go on to break gender barriers throughout her career, like serving as the first woman on the Illinois Supreme Court and its first female chief justice.

“When I went to law school, women couldn't even dream of such a thing,” Justice McMorrow said in 2002, shortly after being voted into the court's highest position. “I hope this would forever indicate that there's nothing that limits women in any job or any profession.”

Justice McMorrow, 83, died Saturday after to a brief illness at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said her daughter, Mary Ann McMorrow. She declined to disclose the illness.

A native of Chicago's Northwest Side, Justice McMorrow was one of three children raised in St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, her daughter said.

As a child, she became a gifted pianist after practicing on the piano her father gave to her mother as an anniversary gift. She graduated from Immaculata High School and later Rosary College, now Dominican University, in River Forest.

Justice McMorrow enrolled in law school at the advice of her mother, who believed her daughter could argue all kinds of viewpoints after hearing her debate with friends and around the house.

Although she was the only woman in the 1953 graduating class at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, her peers elected her class president and associate editor of the law review, family said.

“When she talked about law school, she talked about it quite fondly,” her daughter said. “She said the men treated her with respect with just a few exceptions.”

After graduation, Justice McMorrow worked for a law firm before she was hired as an assistant state's attorney in Cook County, where she became the first woman to prosecute major felony cases.

There, she met her husband, Emmett, a Chicago police lieutenant. The two married in 1962 and had one daughter.

In 1976, Justice McMorrow was elected to the Cook County Circuit Court and then, a decade later, to the Illinois Appellate Court. She was the first woman to lead the appellate court's executive committee.

Later, she was elected as the first female justice in 1992 to the state supreme court and then its chief justice in 2002 before retiring four years later. Throughout that time, she received awards and praise for her work.

Very few women were a part of the legal field before Justice McMorrow, who became a role model because she did so well with the opportunities she was given, said federal appeals court Judge Ilana Rovner, a longtime friend.

“That gave the impetus for the hiring of other women,” Rovner said. “She was a trailblazer and a very fine human being.”

In a statement, Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride called Justice McMorrow “top-tier” and said she was an inspiration to all lawyers across the state for her “courage, perseverance, wisdom and character.”

Outside of her career, Justice McMorrow was active in all kinds of charities and foundations. Faith was a huge part of her life, as was her church, St. Mary of the Woods. She loved the opera and going out with friends to different restaurants. She was always in search of a good chocolate dessert, her daughter said.

“A lot of restaurants knew that and had desserts waiting for her,” her daughter said.

Justice McMorrow was also known for her kindness and compassion. She stayed connected to the legal community after retirement and mentored young women wanting to become lawyers or judges, said Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis, also a friend.

Although she was a pioneer, Justice McMorrow often told those around her she had no intentions of breaking such barriers as a lawyer or during her 30 years serving the Illinois courts.

“I just simply tried to do my best in every task that was presented to me,” she said.

Other survivors include her sister, Frances.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

jmdelgado@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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