Lisa Holder White sworn in as first Black woman on state Supreme Court: ‘We need not limit our dreams or settle for less’

“Taking my oath in this place today recognizes the undeniable value and merit of what I — as a Black woman, mother, daughter, sister, wife and jurist — have to contribute to the work of our state’s highest court,” the Decatur Republican said.

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Lisa Holder White is sworn in as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois by Justice Mary Jane Theis at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.

Lisa Holder White, center left, is sworn in as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois by Justice Mary Jane Theis during White’s Installation Ceremony at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Thursday in Springfield.

Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register via AP

A week after Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, a comparable trail was blazed Thursday into Illinois’ top court. 

Lisa Holder White took the oath in Springfield to become the first Black woman to serve as a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court in the institution’s 203-year history. 

Holder White was selected by retiring Justice Rita Garman as her replacement in the central Illinois district, with the six other jurists on the court approving the appointment of the Decatur Republican this spring. 

Holder White was sworn in by Justice Mary Jane Theis at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, an “extremely meaningful” venue for the new justice. 

“My heritage is a heritage that once involved minds and bodies that were shackled, and doors that were so, so long closed,” Holder White said. “Taking my oath in this place today recognizes the undeniable value and merit of what I — as a Black woman, mother, daughter, sister, wife and jurist — have to contribute to the work of our state’s highest court.

“It is proof positive of the progress of this great nation and our great state. It is a testimony to the notion that as women and people of color we need not limit our dreams or settle for less.”

The 54-year-old justice earned an undergraduate degree from Lewis University and a law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law in Urbana-Champaign before starting out as a prosecutor in Macon County. 

After working simultaneously as a public defender and in private practice, Holder White was named an associate judge in the 6th Judicial Circuit in 2001 — another trail-blazing appointment as the first Black judge in the circuit. 

Justice Lisa Holder White

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lisa Holder White, when she was an appellate justice

Illinois Supreme Court

“It is truly a historic day for the Land of Lincoln,” Garman said before Holder White was sworn in. “But even while breaking barriers in the judicial system and serving as an inspiration to others, she has remained humble, true to her roots and dedicated to ensuring that all those who come before the courts are treated with dignity and with respect.”

In 2008, the state Supreme Court appointed Holder White as a circuit judge in 2008 to fill a retirement vacancy. She was elected to that position two years later, before being appointed to the 4th District Court of Appeals in 2013 to succeed the late Justice John T. McCullough, making her the first Black judge in the appellate district. She won an election for the post the next year.

Holder White’s Supreme Court seat will be up for election in 2024. She told The Pantagraph she plans to run then for a 10-year term. 

The appointment maintains a 4-3 advantage for Democrats on the state’s highest bench over Republicans. That could change in November, when two seats are up for election. 

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