To Serve the Community

From handicap ramps to gender-inclusive language, August Hieber ’19 is working to build a court system that is accessible to all.

Editor's note: this is a story from the the Spring 2023 Chicago-Kent Magazine. To read the magazine in full, follow this link.

“The courts are forums for the community, so they need to care about what the community experiences and lives through,” says August Hieber ’19. “You can’t serve without being culturally responsive, free from bias, and inclusive.”

Hieber works as the senior manager of inclusive access in the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts and staffs committees of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice. Their job is to make the Illinois court system more accessible to everyone, especially members of historically marginalized communities.

“Commitment to community accessibility has been a thread through my career,” they say. “I’ve always wanted to make sure that the community is able to access the services that I’m trying to provide.”

They help coordinate efforts to keep courtrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act across Illinois, including by writing a new disability access policy that can be implemented across the state. But maintaining courtroom access for those with disabilities is only one aspect of Hieber’s job.

They’re also heading up the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice Community Trust Committee.

“The goal of that committee is to promote the community’s trust in the court system,” says Hieber. “I argue that it goes in the other direction, too. I think courts need to trust communities to let the courts know what they need.”

Hieber is hosting listening sessions with court users, where the users can anonymously share their experiences. Hieber then prepares feedback for other Supreme Court committees to read. Recently Hieber hosted a listening session with domestic violence survivors and advocates.

One domestic violence survivor shared during the session, “They only listen when we’re bleeding.”

“That quote is going to go to a Supreme Court committee so it can inform its work,” says Hieber. “We’re creating a conduit from court users to the Supreme Court.”

“August is asked to do a monumental convening,” says Alison Downs Spanner ’10, director of access to justice and strategic planning at the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, and Hieber’s director. “We’ve asked them to try to bring under the court’s umbrella those who have been historically marginalized or excluded and make them feel included.”

“We’re attempting to make the courts more accessible for a system that wasn’t designed for self-represented litigants or people without attorneys,” Downs Spanner continues. “To face that really monumental challenge every single day with the amount of enthusiasm that August brings to the role adds value beyond just their intellect and knowledge.”

Besides the immense undertaking already on their plate, Hieber has recently taken on a passion project. They’re heading up an initiative to make the court more inclusive for LGBTQ+ court users. 

This issue is personal for Hieber.

“I had to come out as trans in court because a judge was so confused by my pronouns on the Zoom call and demanded to know what they meant and why I had them,” says Hieber. “I had to explain that I was transgender. He told me that I should use my hard life to try and negotiate a better settlement for my client. Then he evicted her.”

“That was the death of my practicing. I recognize that the bias I experience prejudices my client,” they add. “That dynamic is not something I can ethically subject someone to.”

So, why not just choose a pronoun and gender conform in court?

“This forum is for me. I am an attorney. I am a court user. I have a right to this space,” they say. “I don’t think the institution has the right to tell me to change something that is so intrinsic about myself. I know that to be more true than any court order or ruling or anything a judge is going to say to me about my pronouns.”

After graduating from Chicago-Kent, Hieber built Proud to Thrive, a legal clinic serving LGBTQ+ older adults at the Center on Addison, a comprehensive community center dedicated to advancing community and securing the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ people in and around Chicago. 

The project was sponsored through an Equal Justice Works fellowship at the Center for Disability and Elder Law.

“Because of lifetimes of discrimination and legal marginalization and social rejection, LGBTQ+ older adults are more likely to experience financial marginalization, they’re more likely to be socially isolated, and they’re less likely to have support from family of origin,” says Hieber.

“If an LGBTQ+ older adult doesn’t have an advanced directive in place and is estranged from their family and relies on chosen family, but didn’t recognize that through power of attorney,” they add, “the estranged family can make medical decisions over the person, even if they haven’t spoken in decades.”

Their work at the Illinois courts keeps them busy, but Hieber always finds energy in the community they serve.

“When you’re enmeshed in a community, I think being a part of that means supporting your fellow person,” they say. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say attorneys have an obligation, but when you have access to the knowledge that we have in this profession, if you don’t share it with your community, you’re foreclosing access to that privilege. You’re further enhancing disparity.”

There is a long way to go until all members of the public trust the courts, but Hieber is grateful that Illinois is putting in the work to be more inclusive, especially when they see other states going the other way and passing laws restricting trans rights.

“We need to do everything we can to counter that and say that doesn’t have a place in Illinois,” they say.

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