Jennifer Hightower realized she wanted to be a lawyer as she watched the O.J. Simpson trial unfold on television.
Hightower, 32, is now one of the youngest judges appointed in Madison County. The daughter of Ed and Barbara Hightower, she grew up in Alton, transferring to Edwardsville when her father was appointed superintendent of Edwardsville District 7. She graduated from Edwardsville High School and attended the University of Missouri in Columbia with a major in political science and a minor in history, graduating in 2005. She finished law school in 2009.
All that time, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She watched “Law & Order” and other crime-and-prosecution TV shows, fascinated by criminal law and the process of trials. When the O.J. Simpson trial took place, she would run home from school every day and turn it on.
“My mom would say, ‘Are you watching that again?’” Hightower recalled. “One day, maybe he did it — the next day, maybe he didn’t ... For me, it was about watching Johnny Cochran give his closing summation. It was about the public perception, about the concept of a fair trial.”
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Hightower said becoming a judge was always her goal, and she sought the advice of her mentors before applying when five seats opened up in the 3rd Judicial Circuit.
“They said, ‘Jen, I think you’re ready,’” she said. “I believe that things work out the way they’re supposed to, things happen at the right time and the right season. I am humbled and honored that the circuit judges have faith in me, and I believe that I am up to the task.”
As Hightower entered college, she took every political science class she could, and realized there were many different branches of the law, from civil litigation to family law. By the time she graduated, she knew the law was what she wanted, but didn’t know what kind of law she wanted to study.
So Hightower worked for about nine months at the SimmonsCooper Law Firm, getting a feel for different types of litigation. Then she entered law school at the Thomas Cooley School of Law in Lansing, Mich., graduating in 2009.
For the last six years, she has worked on the catastrophic injury team for what is now known as the Simmons Hanly Conroy Law Firm. She has worked on asbestos and severe injury cases, and her department has now expanded into environmental law.
“It’s given me a great opportunity to gain experience with a wide variety of clients,” Hightower said. That’s one part she said she will miss upon becoming a judge: working directly with clients.
“I won’t be able to sit in their living rooms with them… I will no longer have the one-on-one client contact I used to have,” Hightower said. “However, I will be able to help the community in a different way.”
While working at Simmons, Hightower taught history and political science classes at Lewis & Clark Community College, and began working with the Madison County State’s Attorney’s office handling traffic and misdemeanor cases on the Alton docket. They ranged from a speeding ticket to battery, possession of marijuana and trespassing, she said.
“I want to be fair and serve the community and the bench with dignity and respect,” Hightower said. “This is going to be a new chapter in my life and my career, and I’m very excited about it.”
As an attorney, Hightower is a member of professional organizations such as Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, Madison County and Illinois State bar associations, the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Committee and is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, where she coordinates fundraising for college scholarships.
She is a committeeman for the Madison County Democratic Party, an executive board member for Crisis Food Center and a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Alton Girls Learning and Developing program. She also does pro bono work for the Land of Lincoln Legal Clinic.
Hightower said it’s a “great opportunity” that she has been given.
“What I look forward to the most is giving the litigants the opportunity to be heard,” she said. “The law is the law, and it’s not for me to change it. However, most litigants just want to be heard. Many are coming in pro se — they do not have an attorney — and they want to understand the legal procedures. I want to afford them every opportunity to be heard and to help them move forward.”
Of the 46 original candidates who applied to replace five associate judges ousted in this year’s retention election, Hightower and Sarah D. Smith were selected on the second round of votes. The third round narrows the candidates to Maureen Schuette, Luther Simmons, Ben Beyers and David Flack. The nine circuit judges of the 3rd District will have to choose three of the four in order to fill the remaining seats.
Madison County Chief Judge David Hylla praised both new judges, calling them “women of outstanding character and ability.” Hylla swore in Smith on Thursday and Hightower on Friday.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.