Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert R. Thomas was the athlete who took the path less traveled when he earned his law degree from Chicago’s Loyola University while being a placekicker for the Chicago Bears.
Although Thomas, 61, was successful on the football field – a 1973 Sugar Bowl Champion at Notre Dame and NFL player – he said he always wanted to go to law school. After his third season with the Bears, Thomas decided to pursue his juris doctorate degree from Loyola’s school of law.
Each day Thomas laced up his cleats and pulled his Bears jersey over his football pads for practice. Afterwards he traded in his cleats for dress shoes and his jersey for a suit jacket before going to his night classes.
Thomas was a part-time student during season and a full-time student in the offseason. Upon graduating in 1981, Thomas continued this cycle with his practice in the western suburbs where he worked on general practice and civil cases.
It was not until 1988 that Thomas stopped living this double life and fully invested in his practice – he stepped away from the NFL and was elected as circuit court judge of DuPage County.
“I was very fortunate to have played with the Bears for 10 years. But I was realizing it was time to establish my family and settle in one place,” Thomas said about the transition from the field to the courtroom.
In DuPage, Thomas presided over civil jury trials and was the acting chief judge from 1989 to 1994. Following that he was elected to the Second District of the Illinois Appellate Court and served there until he was sworn in as an Illinois Supreme Court Justice in 2000.
Thomas was inducted into the Academic All-American Hall of Fame in 1996, a recipient of the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award in 1999 and was the second justice – after Anne M. Burke – to be inducted into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame.
While Thomas may have traded in the 100-yard field for a 1,536 sq. feet courtroom, he said his athletic career correlated with his new venture.
“I think it helped that I was an athlete because I already had my moment in the sun,” Thomas said. “So already having that career behind me and going into a position where my job is to serve the client, I think allowed for more humility and added to my demeanor.”
He added that overcoming adversity, dealing with pressure situations and continuous preparation are not only key in athletics, but also in life.
“I think athletes already have a head start because they’re used to hard work and achieving excellence,” Thomas said. “You can use those same traits of perseverance and hard work in whatever profession you take.”
An example of this perseverance was in a 2007 defamation of character lawsuit against Bill Page, a former Kane County Chronicle columnist. Thomas’ lawyers alleged that Page accused the justice of trading in his vote on a disciplinary case in exchange for political support for a candidate in a local judicial race.
As a result, not only was Thomas awarded $4 million, but also the case prompted an Illinois appellate court to establish a judicial privilege – allowing judicial deliberations to be kept private, similar to doctor-patient confidentiality.
“It was a difficult thing to go through to have somebody write something that was untrue,” Thomas said. “It was difficult to go through on the other side as a litigate instead of a judge.”
After going through his own case, Thomas added that his philosophy of remembering that “there are faces behind the cases,” became even more true.
Craig Belford, a law clerk for the justice since 2001, said Thomas has always focused on “fostering collegiality” throughout the court and his detail-focused preparation for every case throughout all his years of serving in the courts is “truly remarkable.”
“What [Thomas] brings to the bench from the field is a competitive spirit in that he has a passion for his job and for excellence,” Belford said. “What I admire most about him as a judge is his relentless commitment to doing his job well.”
Thomas’ work ethic does not stop at the courtroom doors, but instead continues on in his personal life at home.
His son, Jonathan M. Thomas, who is an associate at Power Rogers and Smith P.C. and one of Justice Thomas’ three children, said ever since his father coached him in youth soccer, he emphasized hard work.
“My father always taught me what it means to be a man of integrity,” Jonathan Thomas said.
Although Justice Thomas did not push his son towards a career in law, Jonathan Thomas said his father has not only been his biggest fan, but is also somebody he is proud of and has learned from that the underlying responsibility behind the law is the people.
“The people that I deal with on a daily basis have been injured, and so I help give these people the opportunity to have their voices heard and have their cases presented before a court,” Jonathan Thomas said. “It’s a blessing, but it’s also a responsibility because I deal with some devastating stories of peoples’ lives.”
Instead of looking at each case with a level of importance in mind, Justice Thomas said he views his job as being two-fold: decisions that help shape the law in the state and affect a lot of other cases, and working to do the best job he can on each and every case because of the people who will be impacted.
While Justice Thomas said his main passions are God, his family and the law, the latter of the three he said is something he is always working at remaining fair in because those decisions affect a lot of people.
“I realize I’m going to be more well-known for what I did on the football field rather than in the courtroom,” he said. “I just have to remember that there are faces behind the cases, and these cases mean everything to them.”