By Marcia M. Meis, Director, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts
The ideals of diversity, inclusion, access to equitable court processes and outcomes, and racial equality and justice are increasingly front and center in the work of courts nationally and in Illinois. Through the leadership of the Illinois Supreme Court, the Illinois Judicial Branch embraces the goal of acknowledging and respecting the humanity and dignity of each court user, court practitioner, and justice-involved person. This enables us to best serve all individuals relying on the courts for equal justice.
To ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion competencies throughout the Judicial Branch, the Supreme Court appointed its first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer (CDIO), Deanie Brown, in 2020. Since joining the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts (AOIC), Ms. Brown has advised the Court on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)-related strategies and supported initiatives throughout the Branch. In addition to her collaboration with local, state, and national justice stakeholders charged with enhancing court access, accountability, and cultural competency, she has been an active member of the Illinois Supreme Court’s Committee on Equality and the Community Trust Committee of the Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission. These court-appointed entities have accomplished much to advance DEI goals, such as proposing methods to enhance the diversity of juries, judges, and staff and pursuing equitable access for diverse court users.
More recently, Ms. Brown partnered with the AOIC Statewide Behavioral Health Administrator and the Access to Justice Division Senior Program Manager for Inclusive Access to begin touring the circuit courts to highlight opportunities for assistance. Opportunities include the presentation of diversity and inclusion competency programs for judges and court professionals; assistance implementing best practices for attracting diverse candidates for associate judgeships and court positions; avenues for accessing the Court Navigator Program providing assistance to self-represented litigants and meeting the needs of persons with disabilities; and methods for implementing trauma-informed approaches, such as assistance with the residual trauma of judges and court personnel, particularly in problem-solving courts and child welfare courts. This work highlights the intersection of behavioral health, trauma, race, and the law to promote inclusive and equitable approaches.
The CDIO has supported the work of judges, colleagues, and justice partners in probation services and the juvenile justice realm who are examining racially disparate outcomes. Ms. Brown also serves the new Office of Statewide Pretrial Services during onboarding of new staff by cultivating awareness of diversity-centered approaches and encouraging deliberative decision-making.
The Court has also approved the CDIO’s recommendation to conduct a climate survey assessing perceptions related to optimal operational environments and attitudes and beliefs regarding DEI goals. This opportunity to look inward and examine where we are as an institution will seek input from the judges and staff of the reviewing courts along with state-paid staff supporting chief judges. All state-paid appointees will have the opportunity to anonymously provide their perspectives in this forthcoming effort.
The CDIO is also examining an opportunity to survey DEI-related data for all attorneys registered to practice in our state. Ms. Brown plans to work with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission and experts from the American Bar Association and the board of the Chicago Bar Foundation to build the survey and ensure appropriate and effective strategies for data collection. Among other useful outcomes in gaining quantitative awareness of current demographics, this data will provide a current diversity snapshot of the bar as we seek to build and support meaningful pipelines to legal careers throughout our state for future lawyers.
CDIO outreach to Illinois law schools for opportunities to encourage, educate, and engage future lawyers is also well underway. Plans include Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis, Ms. Brown, and I engaging with college and university students participating this May in the Southern Illinois University School of Law Diversity Prelaw Summer Institute. Presenting pathways to judgeships, clerkships, and other judicial branch professional positions is an opportunity to open minds to the many options for a legal career.
Helping future lawyers prepare for the law school experience and the profession beyond, while also opening their hearts and minds to the virtues of public service in the Judicial Branch, is a valuable gift for us as well. Through this and other opportunities the courts continue the commitment to a diverse, inclusive, and diversity-informed Judicial Branch, with dignity, trust, procedural fairness, and access to justice for all.