Illinois Judge Association

Pro Bono Spotlight – August 2021

Over the next year through its Pro Bono Committee, the Illinois Judges Association will be drawing greater attention to the need for and importance of pro bono legal services. This committee is being led by Justice Thomas Kilbride (Ret.) and Judge Julie Katz, and will focus on how sitting judges can support pro bono and retired judges can provide pro bono legal services to those in need across Illinois. As part of that effort, the IJA will spotlight an IJA member each month who is providing significant support of pro bono or outstanding pro bono legal assistance.

Pucinski, Aurelia

Our August spotlight is Illinois Appellate Justice Aurelia Pucinski. From the beginning, service has been a hallmark of Justice Pucinski’s career. First starting out as a teacher, she began her legal career practicing in a neighborhood law office where she developed a reputation for pro bono work. She went on to serve as the Clerk of the Court from 1988 to 2000, before joining the bench in 2004. She served as a Circuit Court Judge in Cook County until 2010, hearing more than 10,000 Domestic Violence cases, followed by an assignment to hear adoption, election, property tax and mental health cases. She was ultimately elected to the Illinois Appellate Court, 1st District, in 2010, where Justice Pucinski continues to serve.

As a circuit judge, Justice Pucinski was mindful of the many challenges that litigants face inside and outside of the courtroom. One group that she saw often were elderly people who were claiming that they were being abused but then who failed to appear in court. Justice Pucinski established a program with the Chicago Department of Senior Services would check in on those individuals to be sure they were safe and could make it to court. “These people have some crisis in their life,” Pucinski once said. “I look at every case as a puzzle to see…what is the picture here?”

On the appellate court, Justice Pucinski saw another injustice – the number of self-represented litigants in appellate matters who so often were lost in the procedural complexities of appellate procedure. In 2013, she convened the first “brainstorming”

In 2019, one solution began to emerge. The Public Interest Law Initiative or PILI had recently become the statewide administrator for Illinois Free Legal Answers. The Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, staff from PILI, and the Access to Justice Division of Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts began talks to incorporate civil appeals into the Illinois Free Legal Answers Platform. 

Illinois Free Legal Answers is a virtual legal clinic where low-income Illinois residents can submit a question online to ask a volunteer lawyer for help with a civil legal issue. PILI, the Commission and the Access to Justice Division put together an advisory group that included appellate justices, clerks and practitioners to help develop and implement Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals. “It was an obvious choice to have Justice Pucinski as a member of the advisory group. Justice Pucinski understands the importance of such a project to assist unrepresented litigants in our courts of review” said Justice Mary K. Rochford, Chair of the Access to Justice Commission. The first of its kind in the country, this service was launched in September 2021 and to date, 115 civil appeal legal questions have been answered by pro bono attorneys.