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Calling All Retired Judges: Help Central Illinois Clients With Pro Bono Cases

michael bradnt.JPG
Hannah Alani
Retired Judge Michael Bradnt poses for a photo during a Zoom interview with WCBU.
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The Illinois Judges Association wants more retired judges and attorneys to take on pro bono cases on behalf of low-income residents.

Michael Brandt is one of those judges.

Brandt served as a Tenth Circuit Court judge in Peoria and Tazewell counties for more than 20 years. He was Chief Judge from 2011 to 2013.

Now, he's taking part in a statewide effort launched by the IJA in partnership with the Public Interest Law Initiative to make pro-bono legal assistance a focus of the roughly 1,200 active and retired judges throughout Illinois.

In an interview with WCBU's Hannah Alani, Brandt described the importance of pro bono work — and why civil pro bono cases are just as important as criminal cases.

Michael Brandt: Most folks that are accused of a crime are eligible for a public defender. And there are public defender offices in the counties. There's not a similar, comprehensive network in civil cases. We have legal aid ... there are very few legal aid lawyers. When you talk about the entire state of Illinois, probably 500 lawyers statewide. The caseload there is enormous.

Hannah Alani: Civil law is so interesting. It covers so much ground and it affects so many different parts of people's lives. What are some of the biggest types of civil litigation that you feel people really need help with?

Michael Brandt: It's across the board. You know, in terms of hierarchy or whatnot, evictions are one of them. Family law issues are another, including the simple dissolution of marriage. There are guardianship issues, both adult guardianships [and] child guardianships, where grandparents are taking custody of children for various reasons. We have lawyers doing federal bankruptcy. Home repairs gone awry. Expungement and sealing, to get folks' records cleared up, that have led a law-abiding life and have some impediments for employment, like old criminal records.

Hannah Alani: How many pro bono cases have you taken in your career?

Michael Brandt: So when I was practicing privately, back in the 80s and 90s, I always had one or two pro bono cases going at one time. Now that I'm retired, I try to get probably 10 a year. Maybe more than that, depending on the case, and, you know, the actual quantity. I mean, there's some cases I've handled that have been started and finished in two months. And then there are others that have gone on over a year.

...Every year when we renew our licenses, we're directed to report our pro bono hours. And there's quite quite a few lawyers that are doing pro bono work in Illinois, you know, averaging 60 hours a year. I'm probably averaging two or three times that much, but I have a little more time on my hands.

Hannah Alani: When we talk about the impact you can really have in someone's life, are there any stories that come to mind, any particular clients that come to mind?

Michael Brandt: We talked about expungements and sealing. It's clearing up someone's record. They've led a law-abiding life, and maybe at a younger age, they've had some difficulties, and that becomes an impediment for employment, as well as self esteem. This is a recognition of someone's rehabilitation. A formal recognition.

So one particular instance that really is always stuck on my mind, is doing an expungement or sealing. Generally, unless there's an objection from the state, it's a matter of properly filling out the request, getting things on file, appearing in front of the court and having it done. It's not generally an extensive legal process that takes a lot of time. But I remember this one particular instance where we finished up the particular granting of the expungement and sealing of this woman's record, and she was so elated. She was so happy, she was so grateful. I mean, I kind of thought that it appeared that she had just won the Publishers Clearing House award or something. But she was so very grateful to me. I just remember the expression on her face, and in tears in her eyes.

Hannah Alani: Can you tell us a bit about how the pandemic has affected what you do, and the need?

Michael Brandt: Surprisingly, there's a lot of positives from this, and that is utilizing the technology that we're utilizing right now, for purposes of consultation. And for purposes of routine court hearings. The law requires a court appearance ... but if judges are willing to do these simple hearings, and most are, via Zoom, and the technology can, you know, be utilized by the pro bono attorney and the client, you're saving them a trip to the courthouse. ... And that's really tough to say that something positive has happened from this pandemic.

...I mean, really, some things are better done in person. I mean, eviction or whatnot. And I think that those types of situations, which involve a lot of emotions and whatnot, that the judges there to keep things calm, and in an orderly fashion.

Kristin McHugh/WCBU

Hannah Alani: Do you feel there's a particular need for our pro bono attorneys in Central Illinois?

Michael Brandt: The need has always been there. And it's still there. To help folks navigate through the legal system, helps the legal system. Things run smoother, judges are happier. Clients are more informed. They're explained to them, that our court system is not like TV court. It's not like Judge Judy, and it's not like the Jerry Springer show. We need to do things in a calm, reasonable fashion, rather than some type of emotional confrontational. It's there, the emotion, but it can be tempered with good legal advice and good judicial temperament.

Hannah Alani: I am very fortunate, I've never had to go to court over anything for myself personally. I've covered the courts for years, but I've never been in that particular experience myself. There are some people who have never stepped foot in a courtroom. ... What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about the way the courts run?

Michael Brandt: There certainly an educational process when you're visiting with a client. You know, pro bono or not, one of the things that the lawyer has to temper is the fear of going to court, the trauma of going to court. If you could think about visits to your dentist or doctor and you have some issues. I mean, there's so much apprehension, or maybe even anxiety of it. I've had instances, honestly, of people becoming ill because they were going to court. Just utterly afraid.

And then secondly, in terms of what can be accomplished, or not accomplished, it has to do with explaining to them the court system. And you know, where do we get the facts or the evidence? It's not just, you know, something off the cuff. We have rules of evidence, we have rules of procedure. You know, you can't tell us what your uncle said about the apartment and how bad it was, and how he had this particular opinion. That's hearsay. It's not admissible. So to explain that process eases the trauma a little bit. ... Those are the barriers that pro se folks face.

Hannah Alani: How is your effort to recruit more retired judges going at this point, right now?

Michael Brandt: Well, let's just say that the Central Illinois legal community is very supportive of the pro bono effort. It's important to know, especially for retired attorneys and judges that have inactive licenses, you can do this pro bono work without having an active law license, as long as you're had one at one point in time. If you're in a retired status, you don't need professional liability insurance. There's times where I've utilized the local legal aid's office for interviews. So you know, there's no real general overhead involved.

Hannah Alani: Is there anything that I didn't ask you about that you would really like to share with us and our listeners?

Michael Brandt: Yeah. Not everyone will need a pro bono attorney. ... There are forms you can fill out to get your name changed, for example. There's a process to go through to do that. And even, you know, simple dissolution of marriage ... There's all kinds of wonderful resources.

I'll start with the Illinois Supreme Court, their website, 'Access to Justice.' It's all broken down into categories. There's booklets that you can read about, for example, expungement, or sealing, that takes you step by step through the process. And there are forms available to try and navigate. Same with another website, Illinois Legal Aid Online. And the PILI [Public Interest Law Initiative] free legal answers.

Are you eligible for pro bono legal aid?

Those who are interested in receiving pro bono legal help must apply through their local legal aid office. For Peorians, that's Prairie State Legal Services.

Start the screening process here.

Below are some of PSLS' general requirements for screening:

  • Your household income is less than 125% of the federal poverty level, or up to 200% of the federal poverty level if your household has certain expenses.
  • There is no conflict of interest regarding the legal issue.
  • You live in PSLS' service area, or have a civil legal problem in one of the counties in the service area.
  • You meet the citizenship or immigration requirements established by Congress. Persons fleeing domestic violence or trafficking are eligible regardless of immigration status in matters to address the abuse.
  • Government regulations do not prohibit PSLS from handling your type of legal problem.
  • You have one or more legal problems that fall within PSLS' established priorities.
Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.