CARBONDALE — When Kimberly L. Dahlen was appointed the first female associate judge in the First Judicial Circuit Court of Illinois in 1990, not everyone was happy to see a woman on the bench.
At the start of one of her first cases, a male juror asked whether she was actually a judge; when she told him she was, he said she didn’t look like one.
She asked him, politely, what a judge was supposed to look like.
“He said, ‘Well, probably older, heavier, balder and (with) whiskers,’ or something to that effect … and I laughed and said, ‘Well, I’m sure as I get older, I’ll look older, and I’ll probably have the thinning hair. I may have whiskers somewhere I don’t want them.’ And everybody laughed, and we went on,” she said.
Dahlen, who on Jan. 1 retired from the position she held in Jackson County for nearly 27 years, said she didn’t let sexism get under her skin.
“You know, people grow up in different areas and have different thoughts (about) things, and it’s all in the way that I think you handle things. You make light of it and go forward, or if you can correct it in a polite way, then you correct it in a polite way,” she said.
Dahlen, 62, grew up in Nashville, Illinois, where her father co-owned a grain elevator. The eldest of seven children, she graduated from high school in 1972 and went on to study business administration at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Terra Haute, Indiana. From there, she attended law school at Southern Illinois University.
She was assigned nearly every type of case throughout her tenure as an associate judge. She found the juvenile docket to be rewarding; she was grateful for the opportunity “to say something maybe that might stop a child from going to prison,” she said.
Former Jackson County State’s Attorney Mike Wepsiec, who worked alongside Dahlen for years, characterized her judicial approach as “firm but fair.”
“She had expectations for the attorneys that appeared before her, and you tried to live up to them,” Wepsiec said.
Dahlen said she developed a reputation as “strict” among some of her peers.
“I truly believe that the courtroom is a special place, and that as a judge, you have an obligation to conduct business in a special way for that special place — which means there needs to be decorum, there needs to be a process, people need to be treated with respect and you need to move things along so that people can go to where they need to go,” she said.
She served on several committees with the Illinois State Bar Association, a practice that pushed her to write and to keep abreast of what was going on with the law in Illinois.
As she grew older, Dahlen became more concerned with helping young lawyers hone their skills. She’d make them do memorandums of law, or ask them for case law when they made statements she didn’t agree with.
“I think sometimes that we as judges have to step back and say, ‘How can I make this whole system a better system?’ So sometimes I think judges have to be teachers, too, in the courtroom,” she said.
She didn’t tend to let criminal cases get her down; she focused on the facts and how to apply them to the law, she said. But Dahlen — who lives in Carbondale with her husband, Michael, an attorney — also didn’t take the responsibility of the job lightly. She’d sometimes wake up at midnight to jot down notes about a case, or wrestle with whether she was making the right decision.
“I tried my best to be fair and to do what was right and to be prepared in the courtroom, to be ready for what was going on. … A good judge is somebody that listens, and listens to both sides, and then makes an informed decision based on what the facts are in the law that’s there for us,” she said.
Wepsiec said Dahlen had “the highest integrity.”
“She looked at things objectively and followed the law. That’s all you can ask of a judge,” Wepsiec said.