Benjamin Miller, former Chief Justice of Illinois Supreme Court, dies

Benjamin K. Miller was an Illinois Supreme Court justice for 17 years and was chief justice from 1991 until 1993.

“He was a wise jurist and well respected by his colleagues and the bar,” said retired state Supreme Court Justice S. Louis Rathje.

Miller, 87, died Feb. 25 at Memorial Hospital in Springfield, according to a release from the state court system.

Born in Springfield, Miller received a bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University in 1958 and a law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1961. He served in the Army Reserve from 1961 until 1964 and in the Navy Reserve from 1964 until 1967. He then was a partner in a Springfield law firm from 1964 until 1970 and ran his own law firm in Springfield from 1970 until 1976.

A Republican, Miller was appointed by the state Supreme Court to be a local circuit judge in Springfield in 1976 and was presiding judge in the criminal division from 1976 until 1980. He was chief judge of his local circuit court from 1981 until 1982, when he was elected an appellate judge in Springfield.

In 1984, Miller was elected to a 10-year term on the state Supreme Court, representing the 4th Judicial District across central Illinois. In late 1990, his fellow justices selected him to serve a three-year term as chief justice.

Throughout his time on the state’s high court, Miller developed a reputation for moderate to conservative jurisprudence. He evaluated 20,000 cases for review, participated in more than 2,000 cases in which opinions were issued and wrote 487 opinions.

Miller chaired the Illinois Courts Commission from 1988 until 1991. As chief justice, Miller also established the Special Commission on the Administration of Justice, aimed at improving court practices.

“Justice Miller was a person with great humanity and lived his life trying to ensure the Illinois justice system was always being improved,” said retired Justice Anne M. Burke, a former chief justice.

Regarding specific cases, Miller authored a majority opinion that denounced forced confessions and police brutality in reversing the high-profile murder conviction of career criminal Andrew Wilson in 1987. He also wrote rulings upholding the state’s guilty-but-mentally-ill law and preserving confidential and privileged communications between sexual assault victims and rape crisis counselors.

One ruling that drew significant attention involved his testimony before the Illinois House in 1997 during impeachment hearings over whether then-Chief Justice James Heiple had abused his position during traffic stops and disobeying police. Miller testified that Heiple had not let court members know of the seriousness of an investigation of him by the Illinois Courts Commission. Heiple ultimately stepped down as chief justice but stayed on the bench.

Miller was reelected to a second term in 1990 and resigned in early 2001 to go sailing between Florida and South America and to study the developing field of bioethics.  He also served on many court committees even after retiring, including co-chairing the Cook County Bail Reform Stakeholders Committee with federal Judge David Coar.

“Our system of law represents the finest aspects of American history and American culture,” Miller said in a statement announcing his retirement. “Our devotion to fairness and Justice, our belief in freedom and liberty, and our commitment to personal equality — these are the core values on which our nation was founded.”

In 2003, Miller returned to the law, this time serving in an of-counsel capacity for the Jenner & Block law firm in Chicago.

Miller is survived by a sister, Carol Costello.

Services were held.

Bob Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.

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