From teen parent to fry cook to law career, Pratt looks back at life of service while accepting new role as judge

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Eighth Circuit Judge Chris Pratt receives a hug from his mother, Donna Pratt, while talking with his daughter Jillian after his investiture ceremony in the Adams County Courthouse on Monday afternoon. | David Adam

QUINCY — Chris Pratt said the difference between being a fry cook at Elder’s Restaurant or being an attorney in the Adams County Public Defender’s Office was a “culture shock.”

However, he also said both positions were remarkably similar.

“They’re both still in the service industry,” Pratt said during his investiture as an at-large judge in the Eighth Judicial Circuit on Monday afternoon. “We’re still beholden to our customers. As I make this transition, I can look to support from my family, my friends and colleagues. I welcome the opportunity to engage and hopefully overcome any adversity that comes from this transition.”

An overflow crowd in Courtroom 2A in the Adams County Courthouse watched Pratt as he was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Lisa Holder White, had his judge’s robe draped over his shoulders by his daughter Jillian and received his first gavel from Frank McCartney, chief judge of the Eighth Judicial Circuit.

Pratt was appointed May 10 as an at-large judge in the Eighth Judicial Circuit. He replaces Robert Adrian, who was removed as a judge by the Illinois Courts Commission in February. Pratt will inherit the family/divorce docket from Holly Henze, who will begin sharing the criminal felony docket with Tad Brenner. His term expires in December 2026 after the general election in November.

Pratt’s remarks included words of thanks for his family and courthouse colleagues, intermingled with a few emotional moments and plenty of humor “to keep me from crying.”

He talked about how he wasn’t prepared to become a father at age 16, saying that it “probably was not the best plan. But with the support of our families, we managed.”

He also talked about raising a family while also caring for his wife, Crystal, who suffers from a chronic illness. “There were the dark days and the brighter days, but we survived by supporting and dependent on each other,” Pratt said.

Pratt told the story about when he was handling his first felony arraignment and loudly and confidently proclaimed, “My client is pleading guilty to all counts. I’d like to set this matter on the jury docket.”

He thanked members of the Regional Office of Education, asking to remain on the Cookie Day invite list. He thanked the Adams County Circuit Clerk’s office staff for correcting him any time he set a hearing for a Saturday or Sunday. He also thanked the county’s probation department for preparing countless pre-sentence investigation reports to help him be ready for sentencings — “especially the four or five where I agree with the recommendation.” he quipped.

He also thanked Holder White for taking the time to schedule the interviews with the people who applied for the judge’s position. “Perhaps most importantly, I’m thankful that you overlooked the criminal felony that I mistakenly listed on the application,” Pratt said, eliciting a good laugh from those in attendance and a grin from Holder White.

Pratt also thanked two educators — Margie McClain, his sixth-grade teacher at St. Peter School who he said was the first non-family member to tell him he could be a leader, and Dwain Preston, a teacher at Quincy Notre Dame who later became Pratt’s friend and a colleague on the Quincy Public Library board.

Pratt said it will take time to get accustomed to the label of being called “The Honorable Christopher W. Pratt.” As he prepared for Monday’s event, he said he kept remembering three labels he’s been tagged with — student, know-it-all and teacher. 

“I heard know-it-all a lot as a kid throughout school, and I always kind of bristled at that,” he said. “In retrospect, there might have been a tiny bit of truth to it. Okay, a lot of truth to it.”

Pratt recalled when he was encouraged by his parents to regularly visit the library, often leaving stacks of books as tall as he was.

“I’ve continued to have a zest and zeal for learning and reading throughout my career,” he said. “The skills and abilities I’ve picked up from that have been tremendously helpful throughout my education and throughout my career.”

Now the type of learning he appreciates is self-improving reflective learning.

“Learning that I started to embrace when I finally figured out why being a know-it-all is a bad thing,” he said. “Learning that no matter how much you think you know about yourself or the world or the people around you, there’s always more to learn. I used to spend far too much time looking backward and feeling foolish or being embarrassed about things I had done or said in the past. I consider that, in and of itself, growth and learning.

“I believe that learning is what has truly given me the opportunity to be standing here in front of you today.”

Holder White noted Pratt has served as a presenter in legal education programs with the Illinois Public Defender Association and the Office of the State Appellate Defender. He also has served as president and vice president of the Quincy Public Library Board of Trustees, and the Quincy Museum Board of Directors.

“Throughout the (interview) process, Mr. Pratt stood out,” Holder White said. “Aside from his professional talents, it was very clear to me that he is an honest, intelligent, patient and sincere individual who seeks to be of service to his fellow man.”

Vanessa Pratt-Mueth, Pratt’s oldest daughter, once was his colleague in the Adams County Public Defender’s Office but now is a law clerk for Justice Amy Lannerd in the Fourth District Appellate Court. She spoke about her father as a role model in the courtroom and as a parent.

“When it came time to decide what I wanted to do for my career, I knew I wanted to be an attorney, just like my dad, no matter how many times he tried to talk me out of it,” she said. “Every time I found myself struggling during law school, I thought to myself, ‘My dad could do this while raising a family. That definitely got me through some hard times. 

“I hope that I’m half of an attorney as he is. I don’t doubt that I will be because I know that I have an incredible role model.”

Pratt called the event “emotional” and had to stop looking at his daughters to prevent himself from crying.

“It was nice to look back on some things and look back on 15 years of legal practice and the people who have been there for it,” he said afterward. “It was a good day. Tomorrow we start fresh.”

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