By Access to Justice Division, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts
Justice Mary K. Rochford’s time as Chair of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice ended in June and her accomplishments must be marked with celebration. The Illinois Judicial Branch will forever be indebted to Justice Rochford. As Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis states, “The Illinois Supreme Court expresses its sincerest gratitude to Justice Rochford for her tireless efforts to improving access to justice in Illinois as first a Commissioner and then the Chair of the Commission on Access to Justice. Her steadfast leadership on these issues is unparalleled and has been instrumental in all the Commission’s achievements.”
The Chicago Bar Foundation appointed Justice Rochford to the Commission in 2012. Bob Glaves, Executive Director of The Chicago Bar Foundation, says of this appointment: “As we start our 75th Anniversary year at The Chicago Bar Foundation, one of the most impactful actions over that time was the CBF’s appointment of Justice Mary K. Rochford as our inaugural representative on the Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice. First as a Commissioner and for many years after as Commission Chair, Justice Rochford has rolled up her sleeves and led by example in helping the Commission transform access to justice in Illinois. Our justice system and the people in Illinois are all much better for it thanks to her humble leadership, dedication, and great work.”
Justice Rochford, who is a justice of the First District Appellate Court, accepted the role of Chair in 2015. Since that moment, she has been ceaseless in her efforts to improve access to the court system for court users who are representing themselves, do not speak English as a first language, have disabilities, or otherwise find participating in the court process challenging.
Justice David Overstreet, Illinois Supreme Court liaison to the Commission, says Justice Rochford “has been a tireless advocate to provide greater access to justice for all of the people of Illinois. Her impact will continue to be felt by the people and our legal system into the future.”
Justice Rochford accomplished innumerable deliverables that moved the needle of justice towards greater access. A few of her many achievements include:
- Leading the successful effort to create statewide, standardized, legal court forms in a variety of areas, including appellate, divorce, expungement, eviction, name change, procedural processes, and others, to ensure self-represented litigants can participate in their case.
- Promulgating the Illinois Supreme Court Language Access Policy that developed statewide language access protocols and policies to ensure litigants who speak languages other than English have access to qualified interpreters.
- Expanding the Illinois JusticeCorps program, which places college and law students in various courthouses across the State to assist people without lawyers.
- Launching the Court Navigator Network and the Access to Justice Court Improvement Grant Program, which has awarded over one million dollars to circuits to address challenges faced by self-represented litigants on a local level.
- Creating Illinois Court Help, a customer service hotline, which has provided excellent customer service to all 102 counties in Illinois and changed the way the judiciary views its role in providing information to the public.
- Drafting and promulgating a statewide Illinois Supreme Court Policy on Assistance to Court Patrons by Circuit Clerks, Court Staff, Law Librarians and Court Volunteers (also known as the Safe Harbor Policy), which provides guidance to people acting in a non-lawyer capacity as to what services they may and may not offer to assist court patrons.
- Guiding the court during the pandemic, especially as to the needs of self-represented litigants in remote proceedings.
Each Commissioner and member of the ATJ Division staff will continue to strive to meet Justice Rochford’s rigorous example. Commissioner Carolyn Clift writes, “It has been my pleasure to serve on the Access to Justice Commission under the leadership of Justice Mary Rochford. I so appreciate her insight, guidance, critical thinking, open mindedness, and always warm gracious temperament, and am grateful for her devotion to fairness and equity for all people who encounter our justice system. Many, many, many thanks to Justice Rochford for all she has done to improve and enhance the work of the Access to Justice Commission. She will be sorely missed!!!”
She was a mentor to the staff of the ATJ Division of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, who learned from her kindness, sense of humor, brilliance, empathy, savvy, and professionalism that she displayed in every interaction. Alison Spanner, Director of the ATJ Division, reflects that “[w]orking with Justice Rochford was a joy even when the barriers to the court system for vulnerable court users seemed impossibly large because she was receptive to exploring any idea for a new project. She was always willing to engage with curiosity and a critical eye towards how best to help the court user.”
The Illinois Supreme Court has named Judge Jorge Ortiz, Circuit Court Judge with the 19th Judicial Circuit as the new Chair of the Commission on Access to Justice. Judge Ortiz, who has served on the Commission since 2018 and as a judge for 21 years, has witnessed firsthand the challenges people face in trying to navigate the court system without a lawyer. He states, “access to justice in Illinois has improved tremendously under Justice Rochford’s leadership. I firmly believe the Commission’s work is invaluable to the judicial branch and I look forward to building on the foundation laid by Justice Rochford and current and past Commissioners.”
In addition, Jennifer Nijman, also an inaugural member of the Commission, reached her term limit as a member of the Commission. Jennifer was an outstanding Commissioner and her contributions at meetings and in chairing the Remote Appearance and Strategic Planning Committees will be greatly missed.
We welcome two new Commissioners: Judge Alison C. Conlon, Circuit Court Judge with the Circuit Court of Cook County, and retired attorney Sally J. McDonald.