By Jordan McBride
After 42 years on the bench, the Honorable Judge James R. Williamson’s last day as Johnson County Circuit Judge was Monday, November 30, 2020. Judge Williamson leaves behind him a legacy of judicial accomplishments and a lifetime of service to the people of Johnson County. On the weekend before his retirement, Judge Williamson agreed to conduct an interview with the Vienna Times about his career and legacy.
“At a young age, I always thought I would be a lawyer,” said Williamson. “The subject matter of law was pervasive around me through my home life and the Williamson family in Arkansas when I was there visiting.” All of the men in the Williamson family were lawyers as far back as the 1880s. Benjamin Jackson Williamson, Judge Williamson’s father, was the youngest serving member of the Arkansas House of Representatives when he was elected, at just 21 years old. Benjamin Williamson was following in the footsteps of his own father, who served as an Arkansas State Senator and practiced law. Benjamin Williamson purchased the Johnson County Abstract Company in 1953 in Vienna and shortly after became licensed to practice law in the state.
Benjamin served as Johnson County State’s Attorney and in private practice.
Shortly after graduating from the University of Arkansas School of Law in December of 1974, James Williamson was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1975. He would follow in his father’s footsteps, practicing law in Vienna, Illinois before being elected as Johnson County State’s Attorney in 1976.
Shortly after, and less than four years out of law school, Williamson was elected as the Circuit Judge for Johnson County. He has held that position since 1978.
An Accomplished Career
The overall greatest accomplishment of his career, according to Judge Williamson himself, was receiving the confidence and trust placed in him by the voters of Johnson County and those across the nine-county First Judicial Circuit of Illinois. “Hopefully,” Williamson joked, “after 42 years as Circuit Judge, there would be some accomplishments.”
Some of Williamson’s proudest moments include two instances in 1990 and 1996 when he found two Illinois statues regarding prison inmates unconstitutional. Both of those decisions were appealed by the State Attorney General, with the Illinois Supreme Court upholding Williamson’s rulings.
Another notable ruling involved a 2002 decision in which Williamson found in favor of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and issued a temporary injunction blocking the closing of Vienna Correctional Center. Williamson found that, with the state’s budget and the money to operate the prison already approved for the year, then-Governor Ryan’s action to close the facility could not stand. An Appellate Court upheld Williamson’s decision, and afterwards Governor Ryan decided against closing the prison.
The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin published an article in January of 2007 profiling Williamson, in large part because of his impactful ruling in that case. “I was proud of that article, and it chronicled an important case for me, our county, and the surrounding area.” The article also acknowledged that Williamson was one of only two First Judicial Circuit Judges to preside over jury trials in each of the nine counties in the circuit. Judge Porter, who Williamson replaced in 1978, was the only other. This is a feat that, for a number reasons, is not likely to repeated in our circuit in the future.
In 2019, Judge Williamson became the longest serving Circuit Judge in Illinois. Upon his retirement this week, he was the second longest serving judge in all of Illinois, second only to a current Illinois Supreme Court Justice.
Williamson was elected Chief Judge for the First Judicial Circuit in 2014. The Chief Judge is elected by the 14 circuit judges in the circuit. Chief Judges serve for two years. Judge Williamson was reelected by the circuit in 2016, 2018 and 2020.
The Chief Judge has additional administrative duties concerning the circuit, in addition to serving as a resident judge for their county. Judge Williamson spoke on the challenges of being in charge of the circuit during the pandemic, “Without question, the [COVID-19 pandemic] has created more problems for our judiciary than any other problem during my judicial tenure. There have been problematic issues daily in our circuit created by the virus.”
Judge Williamson was also instrumental in preserving the historic courthouse which has hosted his long legal career. “As you know,” Williamson told me, “our courthouse is on the National Historic Register and the Illinois State Historic Register. This courthouse is very important to me from a historical as well as a juridical perspective. I “cut my teeth” in law in this building.” Williamson worked with many groups throughout the years to preserve the unique Italianate architectural style the building possess. While many similar antique courthouses have become museums or businesses,
Williamson has made sure that the Johnson County Courthouse, which started construction in 1869, continues to see trials and house county offices over 150 years since its construction. “I am very hopeful that this historical gem continues to live and thrive after the new county government complex becomes a reality,” Williamson said.
When asked what his plans are for retirement, Judge Williamson answered, “I have persistently said that at 4:00 p.m. on November 30, the effective date of my retirement, I shall begin to consider what my future will be.” Judge Williamson reflected on his various hobbies, “collecting political and campaign memorabilia, and all of my other collecting areas, which are many.”
He also noted that his land presents many tasks and that he will continue his daily exercise regimen, which includes up to 200 sit-ups a day. Williamson also committed to trying to maintain a “positive mindset” for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago Bears, and the Chicago Bulls.
“For certain”, Judge Williamson said, “I must and will keep mentally stimulated. After 44 years of public service and practicing law… I may have to reinvent myself.”
Judge Williamson requested that we include a footnote in this feature, “When some retire they use that hackneyed expression ‘it’s the people I’ll miss most.’ But, this really rings true with me. Those working throughout our circuit judicial system will be missed. Regarding Johnson County, the Circuit Clerk’s staff, court reporter, bailiff, and security officers are decided and excellent in their work. These people have become dear friends. They will be missed.”
After over four decades of serving as the face of the justice system for Johnson County and countless efforts to save the history and integrity of the county, from saving the Vienna Correctional Center and preserving the courthouse to changing many lives with fair an equitable rulings from the bench, Judge Williamson too, will very much be missed.