By: Justice Mary K. Rochford, Chair of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice and the AOIC Access to Justice Division Staff
It is nearly the end of 2021 and the impacts of the pandemic are still being felt around the world. In Illinois, our court leadership and our dedicated partners pushed forward to assure that the access to justice needs of the self-represented and limited English proficient litigants were met.
During this time of thanksgiving, we want to take a moment to recognize a few of the many individuals who have made meaningful contributions to the Illinois justice system. At the outset, it is necessary (and hopefully obvious) to point out that this list is representative of the great work being done and reflective of the many individuals who strive each day to assure that our courts are fair and accessible.
- 1st Judicial Circuit and Land of Lincoln Legal Aid Remote Appearance Pilot
We recognize Chief Judge William Thurston, Brenda Sprague, and John Murray of the First Judicial Circuit for launching the First Circuit Remote Appearance Pilot Program in collaboration with Land of Lincoln Legal Aid and the ATJ Commission. Their leadership and partnership has been invaluable in designing a pilot program that will increase access to Land of Lincoln’s free legal services through the use of remote court appearance technology. Chief Judge Thurston, Brenda, and John worked tirelessly to identify and install the technology necessary to facilitate remote appearances in each of the nine rural courthouses. They continue to support the pilot by assisting judges and litigants as they navigate remote court proceedings and by collecting valuable data. We look forward to studying the impact of their efforts to increase access to the courts and free legal services for the low-income residents of southern Illinois. Thank you, Chief Judge Thurston, Brenda, and John, for making the pilot program a reality!
- Carolyn Grosboll, Supreme Court Clerk
During her tenure as the Illinois Supreme Court Clerk, Carolyn strove to address the diverse needs of the court system, staff, and litigants. Her focus on utilizing technology to streamline operations has made the Court more accessible for everyone. As the Supreme Court Clerk. Caroline encouraged us to transform and innovate the court system within our respective roles in order to promote justice for all.
Carolyn was generous in providing her guidance and insights. She served on a myriad of Supreme Court committees and task forces during her career, including, more recently, the Illinois Supreme Court’s e-Business Policy Advisory Board and the Illinois Judicial College – Judicial Staff Education Committee. The ATJ Commission is especially grateful to Carolyn for her active membership on the Access to Justice Commission’s Appellate Forms Subcommittee. In that volunteer role, she helped create plain language appellate and Supreme Court forms and instructions for use by self-represented litigants. Josh Vincent, who chairs that subcommittee, stated, “Carolyn was indispensable. She has an unmatched command of supreme and appellate court practice and procedure and an incredible work ethic. She brought tremendous experience, practical insight, precision and, over the six years we worked together, some much needed good-humor to the process.”
Carolyn, we thank you for your dedication to improving our court system and we wish you all the best on your upcoming retirement. You will be missed!
- Hon. Bertina E. Lampkin, First District Appellate Court Justice
The Illinois Supreme Court established the Volunteer Pro Bono Program for Criminal Appeals in February 2020 to address a backlog of criminal appeals pending with the Office of the State Appellate Defender. Justice Lampkin helped to develop the program and has provided exceptional guidance for the Supreme Court initiative. The program aims to collaboratively tackle an access to justice issue by ensuring that criminal appeals are promptly resolved and appellants’ rights are protected. Second District Appellate Justice Donald C. Hudson, and former Chair of the Appellate Court Administrative Committee (ACAC), stated “I had the privilege and pleasure of working with Justice Lampkin on the Court’s pro bono program. Justice Lampkin’s unwavering commitment and dedication was vital to the successful development and implementation of the program.”
Justice Lampkin has served on numerous Supreme Court committees during her tenure on the bench. She is the current chair of the ACAC, which is charged with improving the processing of appeals in our court system. In that role, she has been instrumental in developing innovative and thought-provoking curriculum for the annual Appellate Court Conference for justices, clerks, and court personnel.
Justice Lampkin, thank you for your commitment to improving the administration of justice in our state and for your visionary leadership.
- Heather Murdoch, JMIS Division, AOIC
The development and creation of statewide standardized forms has many steps. It is the final step which makes the forms available for use and puts the finishing touches on the entire production. That step involves digitally programming the forms to be “fillable” by the end user and ensures that the forms conform to disability access standards. This step requires hours of painstaking work. We have Heather Murdock to thank for this important work.
Heather has been in the Judicial Management Information Services Division of the AOIC since 2007. On top of being the gatekeeper for our standardized court forms, she has a host of other essential responsibilities involving the information systems of the Supreme Court. Heather is incredibly precise in her duties and turns around projects even on short notice! We are incredibly grateful to Heather for her high-quality work. She has made it possible for self-represented litigants to access the standardized forms that they need to pursue their cases in a more meaningful way.
- Nicole Okerblad and Madeline Rios, Interpreters
We would like to give special thanks to all those who aid litigants with limited English proficiency including two long term interpreters and AOIC interpreter trainers.
During the pandemic, the required two-day in-person orientation for court interpreter certification shifted to a virtual format. We thank Nicole Okerblad for her central role in the virtual training. Nicole is a certified Illinois court interpreter with over 26 years of court interpreting experience. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Waubonsee Community College. She teaches such courses as: Legal Interpreting, Legal Translation, Legal Terminology and Simultaneous, Consecutive and Sight Translation. Additionally, Nicole serves as one of our interpreter trainers.
We would also like to thank Madeline Rios of Rios Translations Services. As the need for translation services increases, we are grateful for her quality work in Spanish interpretation and relationships with Illinois appellate and circuit courts. Madeline is ATA Certified and a certified court interpreter in California. She is also a rater for the national credentialing program for interpreters.
Finally, we would also like to thank all of our court interpreters who continue to provide quality services to Limited English Proficient and self-represented litigants. As many services remain remote, we are extra appreciative of those who volunteer their time to increase access to court services. Access to justice requires such participation and a strong belief that our courts can be more equitable to those lacking legal representation.
- Samira Nazem, formerly Chicago Bar Foundation, now National Center for State Courts
The Illinois access to justice community has had to let go of a great champion of access to justice in our state. Samira Nazem has embarked on a new journey with the National Center for State Courts. Samira was the first person hired at the AOIC’s Access to Justice Division to focus on general self-represented litigants programs, rather than on the forms or language access projects. Among other achievements, Samira defined the parameters of this new position, made inroads with circuit clerk education about legal information vs. legal advice and advocated for more detail around e-filing exemptions. Samira went on to serve as the Associate Director of Programs & Advocacy of the Chicago Bar Foundation and concentrated on court-based and pro bono programs in Cook County. At the Chicago Bar Foundation, Samira continued to support the ATJ Commission in many ways as a member of the Commission’ s Justice For All grant steering committee, remote appearance committee, language access committee, limited scope representation committee, and the SRL Coordinator grant selection committee. At the National Center for State Courts, Samira will be working on eviction diversion programs nationwide. We wish Samira good luck and will miss her.
- Kahalah Clay, St. Clair County Circuit Clerk
Kahalah has been a stellar access to justice ally in her role as Circuit Clerk of St. Clair County. She joined the Commission’s Court Navigator Network a couple of year ago and actively participated in training sessions. She was also on the Commission’s Court Guidance and Training Clerk subcommittee. During the pandemic, she was an enthusiastic advocate of the ATJ flyers which gave directions on how to Zoom by phone or video and frequently shared other helpful materials with the court patrons in St. Clair County. Kahalah is moving on from the Circuit Clerk’s role and we wish her the best in her new endeavors.
We are so grateful to the Supreme Court and AOIC Director Marcia Meis for their support of the creation of Illinois Court Help, a statewide hotline to help court patrons get necessary court information. Their vision has made a significant difference as demonstrated by the following discussion.
Illinois Court Help (ilcourthelp.gov) has assisted over 3350 court users since it launched six months ago. Think about that for a moment—3,350 individual people—found a friendly, knowledgeable Court Guide on the end of the phone line or in a response to their text or email. That Guide listened, asked questions, empathized with the court user’s situation, and then offered well-informed legal information and procedural guidance in return.
We are immensely thankful to those Court Guides who answer those calls, texts, and emails every single day. Their talent and skills shine through every interaction and are essential in making this service possible. We are thrilled to be able to highlight their work in this newsletter.
Jessica Acosta, Court Guide
In Jess’ own words, working for Illinois Court Help means she is breaking down barriers to the court system:
- “I spoke with a gentleman, who disclosed he is a Vietnam vet. He called in because he was being sued over credit card debt. I explained to him the process of how to respond and at the end, I requested his email. He didn’t have one and I told him it was okay. – “No, problem! I can mail you the forms”. He gave me his address and finally he asked, “Do you know who can help me read these forms?” Immediately, I told him to call us back and I can read the forms once he gets them in the mail. After my response, there was a brief gap of silence. He was crying and admitted how grateful he was for me to offer him that extra support. This interaction stood out to me because I realized that Illinois Court Help is spreading kindness in a system that can be rigidly black and white. This court user had an obstacle that extended far beyond getting the right court forms. Too often, court users are bounced around and their time is wasted. When a court user also has a disability, it takes extra support to file successfully and sometimes this support is not readily available to all. Illinois Court Help is reducing obstacles that a person with a disability may face when going to court.”
According to satisfied Illinois Court Help patrons:
- “Jessica has been so helpful. I am truly glad I found them and reached out. She gets 2 thumbs up. Thank you.” (McHenry County Child Support case respondent)
- “Estoy sumamente agradecida con la disponibilidad y apoyo de Jessica. Realmente es una gran persona.” (I am extremely grateful for Jessica's availability and support. She really is a great person.) (Defendant seeking criminal records in Cook County)
Helen Doig, Court Guide
In Helen’s own words, working for Illinois Court Help means she can help someone in a seemingly impossible situation:
- “I helped a court user who had a civil lawsuit filed against him and he was served with the complaint late. He lives in Wisconsin and is unable to walk, therefore, he could not get to the courthouse all the way in Illinois for help. I sent him forms and through many phone calls and Zoom meetings, I helped him fill them out, answered his questions, and helped him e-file them. If we had not been there to help him, he would not have been able to file his appearance into the case in time and may have been defaulted. What made this truly memorable for me was how his granddaughter would have been unable to help him if this court hearing had been held in Illinois. But because it was remote, she was able to help by sitting with him and learned the e-file process and how to help him join the Zoom for the hearing.”
According to satisfied Illinois Court Help patrons:
- “Helen has been everything to me in helping me to answer this court case. I could not have done it without her. She is highly intelligent, informed, kind and good humored. The world would be a better place with more Helens.” (McHenry County Small Claims Defendant)
- “Helen was awesome. She was very helpful, kind & patient. She made sure to respond to all of my questions and call me to help me out. She never made me feel like I was bothering her. Thank you so much!!” (Macon County Eviction case defendant)
Brittany Underwood, Court Guide
In Brittany’s own words, working for Illinois Court Help means she can empower others to prioritize their safety:
- “I answered the call to a distressed wife in St. Clair County. She needed help because her husband had become an active threat to the safety of her and their children. On one occasion, the husband left his loaded gun on the couch and their toddler started to play with it. She removed the gun and placed it in the safe but couldn’t lock the safe because her husband refused to give her a key. She knew at this moment she had to protect her life and the lives of their children. She had limited transportation and only had a few hours before her husband would return. We were able to complete the Petition and Proposed Order for her Emergency Order of Protection. This was a memorable moment for me because I was able to provide some relief in helping her fill out her forms and connecting her to the Violence Prevention Center of Southwestern Illinois.”
According to satisfied Illinois Court Help patrons:
- “Very helpful! And quick at replying. Very appreciated, thank you Brittany.” (Menard County Guardianship petitioner)
- “She answered my questions and a little extra. Very helpful. Would definitely recommend.” (Rock Island County Family law case petitioner)
Nina Wilson, Court Guide
In Nina’s own words, working for Illinois Court Help means she can find ways forward for those at a dead-end:
- “I had a nice interaction with a court user via text message. He was served with divorce papers and was coming up on his deadline to respond before risking default judgment; he wanted to participate in the case but didn’t know how. He shared with me that he is hearing impaired, thus why he elected to contact us via text message. He was concerned that he would have to appear in court and would have no way of understanding what was going on, given his disability. I looked up his case for him and found he had the option to appear via Zoom- a great relief for him since it provided the option for closed captioning- and connected him with the Court Disability Coordinator. He responded, “WOW my rights for disability is amazingly discovered here! I never knew this. I am honored to be your friend.””
According to satisfied Illinois Court Help patrons:
- “I received more help from Nina in one email than I have in a year. She pointed me in the correct and quickest direction to get the defendant served. Thank you so much!” (Cook County Small Claims Plaintiff)
- “The service I received from Nina was phenomenal. She was patient and quite knowledgeable in her field. I’m so glad I got her to help me. There needs to be more people like her in answering the phones at the Markham Courthouse. She deserves a raise. Thanks Nina!!” (Cook County Parentage case petitioner)
It is clear that Illinois Court help offers much needed assistance. We believe the program will continue to grow and become a mainstay of our access to justice initiatives.
On behalf of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, we thank those mentioned above, but also are deeply grateful to all the judges, legal aid and pro bono lawyers, clerks, court staff, self-help personnel, navigators, volunteers, AOIC staff, our partners, and all those who share the vision of a more fair and accessible court system.