Former Joliet Junior College student now state supreme court justice

O’Brien elected to Illinois Supreme Court in November

Illinois Supreme Court Judge Mary Kay O'Brien speaks to an audience at Joliet Junior College on Thursday, May 4, 2023.

Joliet Junior College welcomed back Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Kay O’Brien on Thursday, describing her as perhaps the first community college student to join the state supreme court.

O’Brien was on the Joliet campus to give a speech to mark Law Day, which was Monday, and focused on the importance of civility in the courts and society.

The ensuing question-and-answer period, however, delved into her personal background as a farm girl coming from a different world than most of her colleagues in the legal profession.

She related one story of a supervisor early in her career who was surprised to find that when O’Brien left work at the end of the day to “walk the beans” she wasn’t going home to take the dog out.

“She said, ‘People do that?’” O’Brien said of her boss’s response upon learning that “walk the beans” meant walking up and down rows of soybeans to pull weeds out of the field. “I said, ‘Farm people do that.’”

O’Brien grew up in Kankakee County and graduated from Reddick High School with a senior class of 43 students.

Coming to JJC in 1983 introduced her to new opportunities.

“I began to understand that there was a big, bright world outside of Reddick,” she said.

O’Brien left JJC after one year to go to Western Illinois University and eventually went on to the University of Illinois for her law degree.

She was elected to the Illinois Supreme Court in November and previously had served 20 years as a judge in the Illinois Appellate Court. She also served seven years in the state legislature and was a prosecutor in the Grundy County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Illinois Supreme Court Judge Mary Kay O'Brien talks with Joliet Junior College President Clyne Namuo (right) and William O'Connor, chair of the JJC Business Education Department, before her speech at the college on Thursday, May 4, 2023.

William O’Connor, chairman of the Business Education Department at JJC, introduced O’Brien to her audience saying, “We think that she’s the only JJC student to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court and possibly the only community college student to serve on the supreme court as well.”

Now, on the supreme court, I am the only person who has a farm background, even though we have Downstate members.”

—  Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Kay O'Brien

O’Brien, who still farms with her brother, also brings a unique agricultural perspective to the court.

“Now, on the Supreme Court, I am the only person who has a farm background, even though we have downstate members,” she said.

O’Brien urged anyone interested in pursuing law to consider a future practice in downstate Illinois.

“The number of attorneys south of I-80 drops every single year,” she said.

Even though the downstate population is declining, the need for legal services persists, she said. O’Brien noted that the Illinois Bar Association offers grants for lawyers willing to work in underserved areas.

“In Livingston County, there are four attorneys under the age of 60 in the entire county,” she said. “I think that is where you could clean up.”