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Appellate judge honored for access efforts

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

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 courtroom.”

Kathleen O’Leary
O’Leary

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 answer questions.”

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.

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