An Interview with Judge Mary McDade

Mary McDade has been a justice of the Illinois Appellate Court since December 2000.

She graduated with a B.A. in sociology from the University of Michigan in 1961.

In 1963, she married Joe Billy McDade and for 18 years she was focused on raising their four children. During that time, she was elected to the Peoria Board of Education, serving as president in 1972 to 1973; was appointed to the Peoria Public Library Board, and was a member of the Board of Trustees of Eureka College, serving as president of the Board in 1980 and 1982. McDade worked actively in the areas of education, mental health, drug abuse, youth outreach, and civil rights.

In 1981, at the age of 41, she enrolled in the University of Illinois College of Law, earning her J.D. in 1984. She was a law clerk for the Honorable Michael Mihm, United States District Judge for the Central District of Illinois from 1984 to 86.


She joined the law firm of Quinn, Johnston, Henderson and Pretorius in Peoria in 1986, becoming a partner in the firm in 1991. She has been an active participant in programs and projects of the American, Illinois and Peoria County bar associations. She was named an Outstanding Alumnus of the University of Illinois College of Law in 2000. She is licensed to practice in the State of Illinois, United States District Courts for the Central and Northern districts of Illinois, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and the United States Supreme Court.

McDade is the first African-American female elected to the Appellate Court outside of Cook County.

Tell us about your background, schools attended, family, etc.

I was born in Columbia, S.C, in August 1939. My parents were both students at the University of Michigan at the time. My father had a doctorate in public health and was the first black faculty member ever hired at the University of Michigan.

He was a major force for civil rights in Michigan and the university tried unsuccessfully to curb his activities by denying him promotions and merit raises.

My mother earned a master’s degree in public health but stayed home to raise three daughters. Her studies did not go to waste, however, because she assisted with prenatal treatment and nutrition training for the poor. She grew vegetables, raised chickens in our garage until the zoning board put her out of business, and made all of our clothes so my father was free to continue his activities without too much financial constraint.

I attended St. Thomas High School in Ann Arbor, Mich.; the University of Michigan, graduating in 1961 with a B.A. in sociology; and the University of Illinois College of Law, graduating in 1984.

I have two sisters—Alma Smith and Nancy Francis. Both live in Michigan. I married Joe Billy McDade in 1963, and he and I have four children. Our daughter, Rebecca, is an attorney practicing in Detroit, Mich.; William is a high school science teacher in Chicago; Sarah is a doctor, practicing in Detroit; and Matthew is a pharmaceutical salesman working out of Peoria. Sarah is married to Brian Johnson, a former professional baseball player, and they are the parents of our first grandchild, Zachary.

Your family has a history of political service. Tell us about your political roots, your father, and sisters’ involvement.

In our family, politics and civil rights activities were always tightly interwoven. Political alliances were initially forged in furtherance of the battles for justice and equality.

In the 1950s and 1960s, we found the Democratic party (or at least its northern components) was most willing to join forces with civil rights organizations to try to pass laws to eliminate segregation and eradicate the most pernicious effects of discrimination, and to try to secure the enforcement of those laws.

My father thoroughly enjoyed the political maneuvering and the balancing of various interests. He ran for public office and was elected as Ann Arbor’s first, and I believe only, black mayor.

My sister, Alma, is currently serving her second and last term as a Michigan state senator, and she is a Democratic candidate for governor of Michigan. My sister, Nancy, is an elected probate judge who, until this year, has been assigned principally to juvenile court. They are both strong Democrats and strong fighters for justice and equality for everyone.

How did your father’s political career influence you? Did you ever consider any other career? Any regrets?

My father’s occupation was medicine. He was on the faculty of the medical school at the University of Michigan, and assigned jointly to the School of Public Health. He held a faculty position in the departments of dermatology, bacteriology, and serology; and taught doctors and nurses, as well as engaging in significant medical research. He was also head of the serology labs at the university hospital and served on several faculty and administrative committees; and was a frequent lecturer at seminars and symposia around the country.

Even here in Peoria, I have run across several people who told me they never would have passed bacteriology or biochemistry if it had not been for him. He took a leave of absence for about two years and worked for the Archdiocese of Detroit. During that time, he helped form the National Campaign for Human Development, which has an annual award which bears his name.

Beyond his career and his family, his major commitment in life was to the pursuit of equal justice for all people with, quite naturally, an emphasis on the rights of black people. As the father of three daughters, he was also an avid opponent of gender discrimination.

His political activities influenced me at a very early age. As young children, we trudged the precincts of Ann Arbor passing out literature and putting up signs for the candidates who seemed worthy of support. It was quite natural for me to gravitate to the Young Democrats at the University and to become a "Kennedy girl" in 1960. Because political activity was ancillary to civil rights, I helped found the university chapter of the NAACP, was active with the student human relations commission, and helped forge relationships between those groups and the Young Democrats. I have been a moderately active Democrat all of my adult life.

Nevertheless, politics is not my career either. I have been a housewife and mother, and an active community volunteer. I served five years on the Peoria Board of Education and six years on the Eureka College Board of Trustees—two as chairman of the board. I was the first black to be elected to the former or appointed to the latter and was the first woman to ever chair the Eureka College Board.

Since 1984, my career has been in law. While I have sometimes lamented the stress and begrudged the hours taken from other things which were important to me, I have never had any serious regrets. That is particularly true now because I am thoroughly delighted with my new judicial position.

Your mother was known as "an angel of justice" for her involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Talk about her experiences as you remember them.

I first saw that description applied to her in a newspaper article after she died, and I laughed at the image it conjured up. My mother was a strong, feisty, outspoken activist. She said the things my dad was too diplomatic, too tactful, or too politically savvy to say. You never had to wonder where you stood with her—she would tell you in an instant.

I honestly don’t know how many years she was president of the Ann Arbor NAACP, but I do know that under her leadership it had a membership that was large, committed, and aggressive in pursuing justice. She persistently goaded my dad and the other members to take one more step. She grew up in South Carolina during times of absolute segregation and violent discrimination. She and her sister saw a black woman lynched and her unborn baby ripped from her abdomen. They vowed to put an end to any system which could permit such a barbaric thing to happen, and even after her sister died she struggled daily to keep that vow. She could be accurately called an angel if the word were prefaced by some adjective like "avenging," "militant," or "implacable."

Having said all of that, however, she was a warm, loving, and dedicated wife, mother and grandmother; a generous, caring friend; and a committed and forceful ally. She was the kindest, most loving, and most supportive mother a child or adult could have, and it has always been my goal to carry on in that tradition.

How have you stayed so active with your career, raising four children, community service, etc?

My son-in-law recently said to me that nobody could ever say I lacked "dogged determination." Certainly that is part of the answer to your question. Another element is that I can function effectively on very little sleep.

A more significant factor is that Joe supported my involvement in community activities and was pretty patient when things were not always perfect around the house—although I was also fairly compulsive about housekeeping and child care and yard work, and there wasn’t really a whole lot to be patient about.

You are married to a judge—the only Republican you have "supported" during a campaign ... do any of your children plan to go into politics or public service? Which parties do they align with?

The children were major factors of my support net in the early years as I dragged them to all kinds of meetings, mostly because it allowed me to be with them while still pursuing community projects.
They also developed an early awareness of community service and volunteerism and a keen interest in a wide variety of issues which they have nurtured enthusiastically over the years. All of them are vitally concerned with national and world events and with things political.

Right now I think only Matthew, who was integrally involved with my campaign for appellate judge, has an interest in political activity.

We have tried to teach them to think critically, and I think most, if not all of the children, are focused more on issues than on labels.

While raising your children, you were actively involved in the community, then at the age of 41 decided to enter law school. Why?

I was enrolled in law school at the University of Michigan 20 years earlier and quit to get married. I planned to finish in Chicago but with the birth of children and the move to Peoria, where there was no law school, those plans had to be put on hold. The year before our oldest daughter would begin college, Joe pushed me to start again. He said he felt guilty because I had dropped out without completing the law education I had desperately wanted.

With his encouragement, and active involvement in caring for our children while I spent weekdays in Champaign for three years, I was able to earn my law degree. It was probably the most grueling regimen I have ever undertaken and there were many days when I wanted to give it up and just rest. But Joe and the children were infinitely supportive and patient, and I am grateful to them because I have truly enjoyed the practice of law, and feel I made significant contributions to its development and to the clients I represented.

Tell us what you did in your career after graduating from law school until your run for Appellate Court Judge.

I spent two years serving as a law clerk for Judge Michael Mihm, the recently appointed United States District Judge, who was at that time the only federal judge sitting in Peoria and Rock Island.
During my tenure with Judge Mihm, I learned what I know about criminal law from a master, and we all worked through the intricacies of federal civil law together.

At the end of my clerkship, I went to work at the firm of Quinn, Johnston, Henderson & Pretorius, ultimately becoming a partner.

Because of my federal court background, I litigated primarily in the areas of civil rights and civil liberties, defamation and other first amendment issues, and issues with constitutional implications—although I worked with a wide range of causes of action.

I also had a significant appellate practice, which was part of the impetus for my decision—made after 16 years of practice—to run for the appellate court.

You are in your first year as appellate judge. Explain how the appellate court system works.

Actually, I completed the first year of a 10-year term at the beginning of December, and I have to say I truly love this job.

The appellate court is, of course, the first tier of review of decisions made at the trial court level. Litigants who are dissatisfied with the outcome of their cases can appeal all final judgments to our court. We "sit" in five districts of the state but are cumulatively one court.

Within each district, the court acts in panels of three to decide the appeals. Although many of the parties elect to make oral arguments to their assigned panel, most waive argument and their cases are decided on the basis of their written briefs and the record provided by the trial court.
We are required by statute to provide a written reason for our decision by means of either a published opinion, an unpublished order which cannot serve as precedent for other cases, or a summary order which is brief and requires little or no analysis.

Persons who are dissatisfied with our decisions can seek leave of the supreme court to appeal cases to the highest level. Because of the supreme court’s selection process, it accepts relatively few appeals and most cases end at the appellate court level.

How would you encourage a woman to campaign for political office? What surprised you the most when campaigning for appellate court judge?

Honestly, fairly, vigorously, and with the highest integrity and honor—the same way men should campaign.

The prospect of running for office is daunting because of the potential for enormous expenditure of money and, perhaps even more, because unscrupulous office-seekers and their supporters are often wholly unfettered by either truth or decency and will manufacture negative information in their quest for victory.

For these reasons, I think we should go into a campaign with eyes wide open and with strong minds, strong hearts, and strong stomachs.

I do think women, as relative newcomers to the field, have the vision and ability to raise the standard for political campaigning and to promote renewed trust in the political process and in those who participate actively in it.

My greatest surprise in my own campaign was how little the citizens of this state know about the court system generally and the appellate court in particular.

As lawyers we understand the composition and function of judicial organizations and we think people—who are, of course, the beneficiaries of the system—have learned how it operates. I was astounded by how many people had never even heard of the appellate court and, although their number was smaller, how many had no concept of its role in our system of justice.

Because of the significance of its impact on the everyday lives of judges, lawyers, parties to litigation, and the general public, I hope we can find a way to remedy the lack of knowledge about the appellate court so judges are elected by informed voters.

If you could change something about the court system, what would it be?

I would enhance the level of commitment of our highest courts to our federal and state constitutions to minimize any opportunity for courts to permit, or at least to overlook, the pragmatic erosion of fundamental guarantees and protections to either facilitate or to validate or ratify improper or sloppy law enforcement practices and procedures.

We should be assiduously safeguarding constitutional promises, not to free the obviously guilty but to ensure their availability to protect the innocent who may be falsely accused.

In your opinion, what issues still need to be addressed regarding discrimination? How well do central Illinois business and government entities do regarding civil rights issues?

All of the same old issues, although not in all contexts. For many of us—women, blacks, and members of other oppressed or minority groups—who are considered successful and socially acceptable, overt discrimination occurs less frequently and it is sometimes possible to go for discrete periods of time without finding it necessary to have to think or worry about it. But, for example, even the most influential black persons going into a grocery store in towns where they are not known will be followed by employees watching to make sure they do not steal anything.

The glass ceiling that exists for women is even lower and more resistant for people of color. For the poor, conditions are often little better now than they were in the l950s and 1960s.

The major advances in civil rights have had virtually no impact on their everyday lives or their prospects. Poverty, itself, is a major factor in this, and it is exacerbated by absentee parents, drugs, and crime. Education, which most of us have regarded as "the way out," has failed poor and minority youngsters miserably.

Between formulaic expectations, stereotyping, bias, indifference, and rejection, many students are being denied the most fundamental education. Far too many high school students can neither read nor write effectively, speak grammatically, or perform simple math functions.

Test scores and dropout rates are disgraceful; masses of students are written off daily from our schools. Profiling creates self-fulfilling statistics which "justify" its continued employment by law enforcement agencies and its acceptance by the courts.

While things are clearly much better for some, we not only have a vast reach to achieve true equality and justice, but also the controlling majority has lost the commitment for their achievement. They literally and figuratively "cross the road" when they see more than one minority group member approaching. We have miles to go before we sleep.

You are a breast cancer survivor, as was your mother. Talk about her experience and how it differed from yours. How has that experience changed your life?

My mother had breast cancer when the diagnosis was literally a death sentence. She had the first radical mastectomy performed at the University of Michigan hospital. When we saw her after the surgery, her condition was heartbreaking. The right side of her chest was nothing but skin stretched over bone. Her muscles had been removed with the tissue and most of her lymph nodes had been taken. She spent hours every day painfully "walking" her arm up the wall to train different muscles to perform the functions of those she had lost.

There was no chemotherapy, but she had cobalt treatments which left her skin brown and brittle like broiled chicken and destroyed her taste buds.

She spent the rest of her life fighting—the edema that doubled the size of her arm, the ignorance and fear that led women to die rather than risk an early diagnosis of the disease, and the lack of clothes which would allow the cancer survivor to feel and look attractive.

My own experience was vastly different;because she was a survivor and convinced me survival was part of my genetic make-up, just as the cancer was.

Research and medical advances provided me less devastating removal of malignant tissue by knowledgeable and well-trained local doctors; follow-up treatment which was effective enough to allow me at least another 11 years of life; retention of muscle and tissue and reconstruction techniques which, among other things, permitted me to wear the same clothes at work and play after the surgery as I had been able to wear before; and genuine hope that this disease could be beaten by me and by others.

How has it changed my life? Many women bemoan the arrival of age 30, 40, or 50. I welcome every birthday and rejoiced when I reached 60. I will be delighted if I am graced with 70th and 80th birthdays.

I have a strong faith in God and a desire to experience and participate in a full range of activities. No matter what my problems—and I have had and continue to have many—I am happy to see every morning and eager to live each day to the fullest.

What issues are you most passionate about?

Truth, trust, integrity, love, and honor. The quest for justice and fairness for all of the citizens of our national and world communities. The preservation of the most fundamental guarantees and protections of our federal and state constitutions.

The elimination of the pervasive and pernicious ill effects of poverty and hunger.

The protection of children and the reverence of and respect for the elderly. The commitment of spouses and their children to mutual love, growth, respect, and fair treatment. Leaving this life with the belief you have made the world better for someone.

Who or what influenced your career path the most?

The "who" is fairly easy. My mother and father, my sisters, and my aunts and uncles in South Carolina who were in the civil rights vanguard when it was life-threatening to be involved and active.
More recently, my husband and my four children, and the many people whom I grew to admire greatly and from whom I learned so much as I participated in activities in the various communities in which I have lived and worked.

I am reluctant to name them for fear that in mentioning some I will omit others without whom my growth and development would have been incomplete. I have had the opportunity to work with and against some of the finest legal practitioners and jurists in this area and have benefited enormously from their skill and their generosity in sharing what they know.

The "what" is also pretty easy—a dedication to equal justice and fairness for all people, regardless of race, gender, nationality, religion, or any of the other classifications which we denigrate or condemn; a commitment to do any job I undertake to the very best of my ability no matter what it costs in terms of time, fatigue, stress, or personal discomfort or discomfiture; and a need to "give back" in service to the legal community for all it has given me.

What is your greatest challenge? Your greatest reward? What are your plans for the future?

One of my greatest challenges right now is related to my job—to refine wisdom, strength, and judgment to somehow properly evaluate my own very strong opinions about how certain kinds of legal—particularly constitutional and criminal—issues should be approached and resolved, and to recognize when it is the better course to dissent and when to compromise.

My greatest personal reward comes at the end of the day. Each morning I dedicate my day to God and I am intensely satisfied when I can review it before sleeping and feel it has been one worth offering up.

As for the future, I have nine years left on my term in a job I absolutely love; I have family members whom I love and who love and care about me.

Since we never stop growing and learning, I feel confident we have much to offer each other still. I have one grandchild and hope for many more with whom to share time, knowledge, fun, and the love of life. My future looks interesting and promising. I hope it works out that way. TPW