Almost five years after Judge John Schmidt's unexpected death, his widow, Robin, is seeking her own spot on the Sangamon County bench.
She currently serves as a felony prosecutor in the Sangamon County State's Attorney's Office and as a trustee of the Springfield Park Board.
"These are big shoes to fill with the retirement of Judge John Belz, but I was encouraged by Judge Belz and by other members of the legal community and people in Springfield and Sangamon County to run for this position," said Schmidt. "It's the pinnacle of an attorney's career, in my opinion, to be a judge."
The position is elected countywide. Schmidt is the only person in the Republican primary seeking the post. No Democrats have filed for the spot, but the vacancy can be filled either by a write-in candidate this spring or by a party slating before July 25, Bill Houlihan, head of the Sangamon County Democratic Party, said.
"Robin Schmidt is among the most experienced prosecutors in my office and her dedication to seeking justice for victims is truly unparalleled," Sangamon County State's Attorney Dan Wright said. "She has also demonstrated a commitment to procedural justice for all people and the rights of criminal defendants. As a judge, she will be ready on Day One to apply the Constitution and the laws of Illinois without bias or favor."
The judge in this position will likely preside over both civil and criminal cases. While Schmidt is currently a felony prosecutor, she notes that she has plenty of experience handling non-criminal matters.
"I've been in private practice on two different occasions," Schmidt said. "Also, for the state of Illinois, I handled civil matters – administrative matters – for the Illinois Department of Public Health. I was chief administrative law judge for some years and handled a lot of nursing home administrative violation cases. And when I was in private practice, I handled a lot of municipal law."
John Milhiser, who led the office at the time, hired Schmidt to work as an assistant state's attorney shortly after her husband's 2017 death. Milhiser went on to be appointed U.S. Attorney for Central Illinois and is now seeking the GOP nomination for Illinois Secretary of State.
"She cares about people," said Milhiser. "And when you're prosecuting cases, you're often dealing with victims who have been through traumatic events. And I think she understands and cares about them." He added the death of her husband has given her greater empathy for those who are suffering.
"She approaches cases with empathy, not only understanding that these victims are going through something, but she knows even the defendants have made mistakes. They need to be held accountable. But not all of them need to be locked up with the key thrown away," Milhiser said.
Schmidt, who holds a law degree from Southern Illinois University, said she has an affinity for courts geared toward addressing problems that cause defendants to keep reoffending.
"The victims of crimes certainly deserve to know that they're protected from dangerous members of our community," she said. "However, there certainly is an emphasis in the criminal justice system to look at what we could do in terms of treatment for defendants, so that we're not continually finding him back in the exact same situation as we started with."
For example, Sangamon County has a drug treatment court, a structured program in which nonviolent felony offenders who have drug dependency issues are placed on probation and are required to participate in substance abuse treatment, frequent drug testing and community support meetings. Their progress is at first monitored weekly by the court.
Other jurisdictions have also experimented with courts for homeless offenders or for veterans who commit crimes after leaving military service. Schmidt said she would like to see such programs expanded in Sangamon County.
Sangamon County Circuit Clerk Paul Palazzolo added, "I think she has a heightened sense of fairness and dedication. In her role as part of the state's attorney's office, our office interacts with her rather frequently. My team members who interact with her always have positive things to say about their interactions."
The late John Schmidt had been the Sangamon County state's attorney prior to becoming a circuit court judge. He had been appointed an appellate court judge shortly before his death.
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].