Carla Barnes continues to break milestones in the 11th Judicial Circuit Court.
Barnes was sworn in Feb. 11 as the first African American judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit, which covers Ford, Livingston, Logan, McLean and Woodford counties.
She was also the first Black Chief Public Defender in McLean County as well as the first Black administrator in the county.
“This is an important job, but I think being the public defender has helped prepare me for it,” Barnes said in her roughly 10-minute speech. “For every litigant, their case is the most important for them. They’re anxious, nervous and some may even be bitter, but all of them want to feel that their case is important to the judge. I will work hard to really listen to them and always do my best to apply the law to their set of facts. Win or lose, they’re going to know that I was fair.”
Barnes fills the vacancy left by Judge Scott Drazewski, who retired at the end of 2020.
She was sworn in by retired 11th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Elizabeth Robb.
“You’ve been on my radar a long time as a potential judge and I’m just absolutely delighted and thrilled, and feel that the 11th Circuit is enriched by the selection of you as a circuit judge,” Robb said before swearing her in.
Barnes was the McLean County chief public defender since 2014 after starting in the public defender’s office in 2001. She served as an Assistant State’s Attorney in Cook County and McLean County before then.
When thanking her family, Barnes especially pointed to her sister, Sharon, who took her in when Carla was 13 years old.
Barnes, from Chicago Heights, had said she did not have a relationship with her father and her mother later suffered an illness that required her to live at an assisted living facility.
Barnes moved in with her sister at Illinois State University, as her older sister “had to become both mother and father” while maintaining their sister relationship, Barnes said.
“You worried so much about me, but look sissy, I didn’t turn out too bad,” Barnes said as she displayed the black gown she was just donned with.
Linda Foster, president of the Bloomington-Normal branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People advised her that “Above all, stay true.” She also said that Barnes is the first Black judge in the circuit, “but not the last.”
“I’m proud of who you are, who you are becoming and all that you have to give as a role model, trend setter, history maker, and always holding up the scales of justice during all of your deliberations and communications,” Foster said.
In the opening remarks of the ceremony, Chief Judge Mark Fellheimer noted that he found it fitting that Barnes’ swearing in “just so happened” to be during the same week of when Black History Month originated from.
“Hopefully with Carla’s appointment today, it will encourage other minority attorneys to choose to live and practice in our circuit to therefore increase the number of qualified minority attorneys for various positions within the judicial system, including future judges,” Fellheimer said.
The 11th Judicial Circuit now has seven men and three women judges.
Barnes also serves as a board member of the Juvenile Justice County and is an active member of the McLean County veterans court and drug court. She was appointed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority in 2017 and reappointed by Gov. J. B. Pritzker in 2020.
She earned her bachelor’s degree at Illinois State University and her law degree from John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
Barnes will initially be assigned to a Livingston County criminal docket to avoid conflicts of interest from her time as public defender, and she will later return to McLean County.
Her appointment will end Dec. 5, 2022 and the vacancy will be filled by the winner of the November 2022 general election, which she indicated she will run for.