Member Groups

Diversity Matters
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Diversity Leadership Council

June 2016, vol. 9, no. 1

Kane judicial system changes to better reflect diversity within county

Mention the word “diversity” at any gathering of attorneys in Kane County and you will hear every manner of spirited opinion-making. As a member of the KCBA Diversity Committee, I have been present at many committee meetings where various issues of diversity are discussed freely and passionately. The committee’s goal is “to realize the benefits of diversity and inclusion through education, training and open dialogue.” And so I now openly share with you some of the dialogue at the heart of the legal system in Kane County.

“Diversity,” as defined by our State’s Attorney Joe McMahon, “is so much more than country of origin; it includes diversity of experience, socio-economic background, and culture.” While the Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office (KCSAO) can point to a gender statistic where 55 percent of assistant state’s attorneys are female and 45 percent are male, it keeps no record of ethnicity or race. “We look for ‘richness of experience’ and a desire to work with and protect the rights of crime victims,” according to McMahon. In hiring, McMahon says he tries to identify candidates with a broad range of experiences, such as study abroad, clinic work, a second career, or military service. “I look at diversity from a perspective of diverse thought.” This, he says, creates a more robust debate and helps inform good decision-making. Ethnicity, race, and gender are part of that, but not all of it.

Yet, in recognition that ethnicity, race and gender are part of the diversity equation, our State’s Attorney created the position of Diversity Coordinator. It is the Diversity Coordinator’s job to reach out to law student groups where diverse candidates can be found and draw them to the KCSAO. The hope is that exposure to the KCSAO will encourage law students of different races, ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds to stay in Kane County and become part of our legal fabric.

The first Diversity Coordinator in the KCSAO was Divya Sarang, a woman born and raised in India and who immigrated to America about 30 years ago having already earned a law degree. Full of hope in the American Dream, she went back to law school and became licensed to practice in Illinois. Her career moved from private practice to state’s attorney’s office to judgeship. In 2015, Judge Sarang became Kane County’s newest associate judge. Judge Sarang acknowledges being “lucky to have excellent mentors who were encouraging along the way.” She says she came to America – was drawn to America – because “I believed there were no barriers.”

This theme of encouragement, mentoring, and no barriers is a common one among those judges who stand out for their diversity of race and ethnicity.

Retired Chief Judge Keith Brown, Kane County’s one and only Black judge to date, asserts that the reason he became a judge was to create diversity within the Kane County judicial system. “You have to recognize what cultural challenges people have when they find themselves in the court system,” says Judge Brown. “Minorities are not in the minority within our criminal system. You just have to look at the make-up of our prison system to see the disproportionate percentage of cases that involve minorities.” While he acknowledges that “just having Black or Hispanic judges isn’t going to solve all the problems in the legal system,” he asserts that diversity of perspective and understanding make for a fairer system.

In order to diversify its perspective and understanding, the Kane County legal system needs to encourage diverse candidates to entry-level jobs “because they are the ones who become judges,” says Judge Brown. “Judgeship doesn’t happen overnight; it takes a 10- to 20-year period,” he notes. “The judiciary is intimidating, especially for those who may feel like an outsider. My objective was to encourage diverse candidates to get engaged in the process.”

When Judge Brown came to the bench as an associate in 1991, the Kane County judiciary was almost exclusively comprised of white men. Diversity, at that time, took the form of two women judges: Judge Pamela Jansen, who was appointed associate in 1987, and Judge Judith Brawka, appointed in 1991. Today 10 of the 28 presiding judges are women. Judge Judith Brawka rose to the position of chief judge in 2012, and having served as such until 2015, was followed by Judge Susan Boles as the current chief judge.

Chief Judge Boles recognizes that as a young female lawyer she benefitted from being able to witness that females can have a successful career and family life. Her professional experiences, she explains, “have been shaped, influenced and encouraged by both male and female role models. I have had the good fortune to work for and alongside some incredibly talented lawyers and judges.”

Judge Brown says that he has tried to be a mentor to women judicial candidates, as he knows the feeling of paving new roads. Not only was he the first Black judge in Kane County, but for six years he held the top legal position in the 16th Judicial Circuit as he served as acting chief judge (from 2004 to 2008) and as the official chief judge (2008 to 2010). He knows first-hand that “judges have a lot of power when it comes to shaping the judicial system,” which leads him to ask and answer a critical question: “Who will a judge be more inclined to listen to for ideas and opinions? Another judge.”

Long before the judiciary can diversify its ranks, however, it needs to nurture a pool of candidates. That seems to be at the crux of why many Kane County judges regularly visit local schools to speak to students.

Judge Rene Cruz, who in 2012 became the first Hispanic judge of the 16th Judicial Circuit, offers: “One of my concerns -- and why I go to high schools and middle schools – is that if I’m first, but the only, then I really haven’t opened the doors. I am always looking for opportunities to encourage qualified individuals. If the pool isn’t there, then expectations are not raised high enough.”

Judge Cruz makes a point of engaging with students during after-school programs in Aurora, the city where he settled with his family and started his legal career. During school events, he will talk to 20-30 students at a time, often in Spanish, and then meet with their parents. In this way, he helps immigrant parents to bridge the culture gap between how they were raised and the world in which their children are growing up. Born in Panama to a military family, Judge Cruz is comfortable relating to individuals of diverse backgrounds. As he says of his upbringing, “I had to learn quickly to accept others and adjust.”

But accepting others and adjusting does not translate into ignoring diversity. According to Judge Cruz, there is an “obvious gap in Hispanic legal services” in Kane County. Recognizing this gap, he started his law career in one of first local law firms focused on carving out a niche within the Hispanic community. This idea, he says, is starting to catch on. He has noticed that as the Hispanic population has grown to comprise nearly 32% of those living in Kane County in 2015, law firms providing Hispanic legal services are opening up to fill the perceived gap.

With such a growth in the number of people who identify as Hispanic, it is perhaps not surprising that the 16th Judicial Circuit soon followed Judge Cruz’s appointment with another Hispanic judge, Judge Robert Villa, in 2013. An active member of the Hispanic National Bar Association, Judge Village identifies with both ethnic components of his mixed Mexican-Irish parentage. Having grown up among family members whose cultures differed substantially from one another, Judge Villa opines that “the language of diversity is about inclusiveness.” He believes it is the obligation and responsibility of those who wish to be accepted to “get outside your own head” and be likewise accepting. “It is counter-productive to get a seat at the table then disparage others at the table – which creates the cycle in reverse,” he explains.

Just as the Kane County was opening its judicial doors to Hispanic candidates, it was also ushering in another type of diverse judicial candidate: an openly gay man. Judge John Dalton won the race for 16th Judicial Circuit Court Judge in November 2012, after having run and lost in 2010. Between these judicial races, he was elected trustee of Elgin Community College and became the first openly gay man to hold elected office in Kane County. By winning the race for Kane County circuit court judge, he became the first openly gay man in Illinois history to hold such a position outside of Cook County.

Judge Dalton came to the bench after a legal career that started in 1987 with civil litigation and ended in 2008 when his in-house attorney position with CitiGroup disappeared as the economy collapsed. This unanticipated time-off led him to a period of introspection, which led to his decision that the best use of his experience, talents and temperament was as a judge. As he explains, “I didn’t run – and I don’t serve – as a gay judge. Being gay is just part of who I am. It has affected me, but it does not define me.” However, he affirms that it is “good to have an element of diversity (in the judiciary.” Having a “broader cross-section” is a good thing, he opines.

Judge Dalton recognizes that his background and experience has colored his perspective. He remembers growing up, going through college and law school, and beginning his career as a man who felt compelled to hide his true self. “The world had not conditioned me for acceptance, but rejection,” he explains. Over time, he mustered the courage to come out: first to colleagues, then friends, then siblings, and finally his parents. And as each one accepted his news, his life changed. “It was liberating,” he recalls. “My relationship could be honest.”

Being gay, he says, has made him more sensitive to differences and more compassionate of those who are outside the cultural norm. It has inspired him to champion human rights and he has several awards as a result, including two Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian awards, a “Speak Out Against Prejudice” award from the City of Elgin, and the Community Leadership award from the Illinois State Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He also accepts invitations to speak at high schools, where he can share his story of growing up gay and can encourage students to show compassion and refrain from hurtful, hateful talk.

In summary, says Judge Dalton, “The more that historical barriers fall, the more we are selecting judges by qualifications and experience, and not by accidents of birth. Change forces us to ask who would make the best judge and not just who looks like me.”

This change is happening not just behind the judicial bench, but throughout the make-up of Kane County’s judicial partners, according to Kelli Childress, the Kane County Public Defender since 2011. “I have seen a lot of change,” she comments. “Those we serve have not changed dramatically, but as a judicial system, our judicial partners have embraced diversity and it has done wonders to the system.”

According to Childress, diversity generates cultural sensitivity. “We sit in a position to pass judgment on others all the time. We need to do this from where they stand instead of where we stand.” Seeing the problem or challenge from the other person’s point of view, from their cultural and experiential eyes, “leads to real justice,” says Childress.

Childress’s interest in justice and fairness within the legal system is apparent in the active role she plays in the Illinois State Bar Association. Since 2011, she has been a member of the Human Rights Section Council. As the current chair of this council, she has earned a spot on the Diversity Leadership Council, which serves as the umbrella group that fosters communication and coordination between the ISBA’s diversity-related committees and section councils. These include the Standing Committee on Women in the Law, Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Disability Law, the International Law and Immigration Section Council, as well as the Human Rights Section Council.

“There are so many reasons why diversity is important,” says Childress. “People of diverse backgrounds bring better understanding and make us more emotionally intelligent.”

It is clear from the voices of our legal leaders that diversity is a prized quality that they agree needs to be nurtured, encouraged, and intentionally sought. As Chief Judge Boles summarizes, “The 16th Circuit Judiciary is more diverse than in years past. However, we need to do more and continue that trend to work toward a circuit that is truly representative of the citizens and community members in which we all serve.”

This article was originally published in the Kane County Bar Association’s Bar Briefs April 2016 Diversity issue.

Judith Miller is the Legal Services Director at Administer Justice, a legal aid non-profit organization serving Kane and DuPage counties. Judith earned her J.D. from Northern Illinois University College of Law in 2008. She is a member of the Kane County Bar Association’s Diversity Committee.