Illinois Judges Association

Pro Bono Spotlight - May 2022

Judge James Brusatte is the subject of our May Pro Bono Spotlight. Judge Brusatte’s commitment to public service can be traced to his stint as an intern in the Joliet Legal Aid Clinic while still in law school at the University of Illinois. He remained a volunteer there for the next 15 years. His dedication and professionalism made him a role model for community servants and public interest lawyers alike, and he received numerous honors, including being the first recipient of the LaSalle County Prairie State Pro Bono Volunteer Attorney of the Year in 1979.

After graduating from law school, Judge Brusatte served as LaSalle County’s Juvenile Guardian Ad Litem from 1980 to 1983. In 1980, he began 10 years as the Public Defender of LaSalle County before becoming the LaSalle County Civil Attorney from 1992 to 1994. Switching sides of the bench, he began his renown judicial career in 1994.

During his time on the bench, Judge Brusatte often reached out to mentor other 13th Circuit judges, helping to improve judicial proceedings for all those residing in the 13th Circuit. Ever since making the move from Ottawa to Champaign in retirement, Judge Brusatte has represented the 5th District in the Illinois Judges Association, where he is currently serving on the Pro Bono committee.

Judge Brusatte’s commitment to pro bono legal service continued to grow even after he retired from the bench. As the Pro Bono Volunteer Coordinator at Prairie State Legal Services (PSLS) for eight years, he positively impacted both the clients and the attorneys who worked there. Don Dirks, Jr., Managing Attorney of the Ottawa office, first began working at PSLS with Judge Brusatte 33 years ago. "As our Volunteer Pro Bono Coordinator, Judge Brusatte never hesitated to call up a volunteer attorney and make a pitch for them to represent a client whose case had some thorny issues. His experience and insight also helped us with our own cases, and he was always willingly shared his expertise, especially with our newer attorneys." By using his knowledge of the local legal community, Judge Brusatte successfully expanded PSLS’s volunteer pool by recruiting numerous new pro bono attorneys. All told, Judge Brusatte skillfully matched indigent civil clients with volunteer attorneys offering quality legal services in 578 cases during his tenure as volunteer coordinator.

When asked about Judge Brusatte, Sarah Megan, PSLS Director of Litigation, exclaimed that “he is terrific!” She then recounted how she “loved being in the Ottawa office when [Judge Brusatte] was there” because “[h]e had so much energy and passion for helping people and contributed to the office work atmosphere well beyond the pro bono coordination work. His enthusiasm was infectious to everyone around him!” As Judge Brusatte proudly admits, being PSLS’s volunteer coordinator was probably his most rewarding legal service experience outside his work on the bench. For his commitment to volunteerism and public service, Judge Brusatte was named the 2019 Prairie State Legal Services Volunteer of the Year.

Well into his retirement, Judge Brusatte continued to serve people across the state of Illinois in need of pro bono services through his participation in the Public Interest Law Initiative’s Illinois Free Legal Answers volunteer program. His professional interests also extended into the appellate realm, and he currently serves as a State Commissioner on the State of Illinois Appellate Defenders Commission.

Judge Brusatte’s devotion to public service reaches beyond the law, too. His community service efforts have ranged from providing health services to supporting community youth services and youth sports, with Judge Brusatte ever at the helm. He was the President of CASA of LaSalle County and the Youth Service Bureau of Northern Illinois, served on the Boards of the Hospice of Ottawa Community Hospital and the United Way of LaSalle County, championed literacy as the Reddick Library Commissioner of LaSalle County, and aided his faith community as a member of the Parish Council, St. Francis in Ottawa. He has promoted the success of the broader community through his work in the Kiwanis and Rotary, and as a Youth Baseball coach. The lives of citizens in Judge Brusatte’s community are richer for his devoted service.

It is his pro bono legal service efforts, however, that have taken on special significance for Judge Brusatte. In explaining his longstanding dedication to pro bono service in his own words, Judge Brusatte has said:

"There are personal and societal reasons for my pro bono involvement. It is legally and morally imperative to provide quality legal representation to everyone in our country. Sitting and retired Judges can particularly, by their role, serve as a valuable and significant resource to help all litigants. The present legal environment is inundated with Pro Bono needs. As a sitting Judge, I was blessed to have PSLS available in LaSalle County as a constant and competent resource. I wish to thank all of the attorneys who stepped up to help those in need over the years. Even as a practical matter, our system would be worthless without helping all. On a personal level I agree with Saint Francis. It is in giving that you receive. It just feels good to help others."