Appellate judge honored for access efforts
By Nancy McCarthy
As an idealistic student in the 1960s, Kathleen O’Leary knew she wanted
a law degree but imagined putting it to use in the State Depart-ment or “somehow
making the world a better place through diplomacy.” That idea, along
with thoughts of becoming a nurse in Vietnam, fell by the wayside when O’Leary
externed for the Los Angeles City Attorney and “fell in love with the
She was hooked. As her law practice developed, first in a state legislator’s
district office and then as an Orange County public defender, O’Leary
became aware of how many people came to court without a lawyer, and how many
of them spoke limited or no English.
Her concern for access to justice grew into a passion to which O’Leary
has dedicated her career and for which she was honored last month with the
Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award. Named for the founding chair of
the Judicial Council’s Access and Fairness Advisory Committee, the award
honors a trial judge or appellate justice whose activities demonstrate a long-term
commitment to improving access to justice.
“Justice O’Leary’s work has made a concrete difference in
the ability of California’s residents to have meaningful access to the
courts,” said California Appellate Justice Laurie Zelon, herself a longtime
supporter of legal assistance for the poor.
O’Leary was the first woman presiding judge of the Orange County Superior
Court and one of a handful of female presiding judges in the state before being
appointed to the Court of Appeal in Santa Ana in 1999. “I’ve been
involved in a lot of different ways with trying to focus on making sure the
justice system is available,” O’Leary said. “It really belongs
to the people so we need to find ways they can effectively access it.”
Always active in judicial and law-related activities, O’Leary, 56, has
chaired two time-consuming Judicial Council task forces — one devoted
to self-represented litigants and the other to the need for court interpreters.
The Task Force on Self-Represented Litigants, created in 2000, developed an
action plan for assisting people who do not have lawyers to get through the
court process. Among its key findings, O’Leary said, is the notion that
self-help centers supervised by attorneys are the best way to provide services. “We
used to have a room with a bunch of brochures,” she said. “But
people need more than just a brochure or a book. They need a human who can
The task force also determined that self-help must be recognized as a core
function of the courts, an idea that helped win $8.7 million in state funding
for self-help centers, the first time continuing funds have been made available
for those services. A rule of court to adopt self-help centers as a core court
function is under consideration by the Judicial Council.
Every county in California now offers some sort of self-help operation, ranging
from sophisticated centers in densely populated Los Angeles, Ventura and San
Diego counties to less populated counties that collaborate and hire a single
attorney. In the busiest courts, 80 to 85 percent of the parties in family
law matters come to court without a lawyer.
A lack of English proficiency often accompanies the inability to hire an attorney,
and O’Leary’s work as chair of the Court Interpreters Advisory
Panel focused on that issue as well. Although legislation to provide interpreters
for all court matters was vetoed by the governor, O’Leary lobbied for
the measure, speaking to lawmakers and community groups and helping the staff
develop information to underscore the need.
Despite the veto, she continues to advocate for the availability of language
access services in self-help centers and clerk’s offices as well as inside
the courtroom. O’Leary said that while official court forms must be completed
in English, instruction booklets and sample forms are offered in other languages
and the self-help center staffers often are bilingual.
O’Leary said the Aranda Award is particularly meaningful because she
knew the late Judge Aranda. “I know the personal commitment he had to
making courts more accessible, and I think it’s important to recognize
work being done in this area,” she said.