Our Commissioner Spotlights highlight the judges, lawyers, and educators from across Illinois who serve as our Commissioners. The Illinois Supreme Court appoints Commissioners to a three-year term of volunteer service.
These leaders are known for their reputation for professionalism and contributions to the bar and their communities.
This Commissioner Spotlight highlights a remarkable woman, Judge Alicia N. Washington, who has served as a judge on the Tenth Judicial Circuit since January 2016. She presides in the Domestic Relations division at the Peoria County Courthouse.
Prior to her appointment as an associate judge, the Peoria native was a civil attorney at Janssen Law Center handling personal injury cases and worker’s compensation claims. She also advocated for clients at Prairie State Legal Services where she began her legal career.
Judge Washington has served on the Commission since 2017 and is a member of the Executive Committee.
Why did you want to become a judge?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a lawyer to give voice to issues that didn’t only concern me, but also my community and those who are oftentimes overlooked. These are people who are not always seen or heard, and who reflected my image. I have always believed in the concept of liberty and justice for all since the first time I said the Pledge of Allegiance.
When I pursued a judgeship, I did so not just for myself, but for my community and for everyone coming into the courthouse seeking someone to listen and provide them with access to justice.
As a judge, I knew that I would have an opportunity to listen and be a great interpreter of both the law and the facts as people present them. Some people speak Spanish, some people speak French, but I think one of the greatest assets of being a judge is being able to speak “people.” Being a judge, neutrality is your superpower.
Thurgood Marshall is one of my role models and mentors. However, he did not share all of my traits. I never had the opportunity to meet a Black female judge while growing up.
To be audacious enough to have that dream, I had to be willing to make it happen for myself. It’s been an amazing journey and I’ve been supported by other professionals who respect the craft and the legal profession.
What was it like to transition from attorney to judge?
I think my path was built by becoming more aware of who I am as a person and recognizing that the justice system needed to represent people like me. I didn’t just want to be heard, I wanted to be seen, so others knew that they had the same opportunities and that the courts are inclusive and open to all.
I wanted people to believe that judges actually understand what it’s like to deliver fair justice.
As an attorney, I had the privilege of being a client advocate. However, there was a natural evolution in my practice that moved me from wanting to serve as an advocate to aspiring to become a judge.
As a judge, I have the honor of listening to people during their most emotional and sensitive moments and assisting in resolving those matters—sometimes of the heart and sometimes of the pocketbook.
Integrity is a key part of being a judge. Being able to interpret citizens’ requests has been a journey because as a lawyer, I was always on the side of my client. As a judge, however, I have the ability to hear both sides.
Part of this development happens through education, whether it’s undergraduate, graduate school, law school, or mentoring. Another important part is being involved in your community.
I believe that educating oneself, not just legally, but by getting involved in your community, is one of the most important parts of being a judge, because we serve the community.
How has mentoring played a role in your career?
Mentoring has molded me into the person I am today. My mentoring started, of course, at home. My mother and father were my role models.
Both my mom and dad placed successful people in front of me throughout my youth so that I knew that any dream was possible.
My first mentoring relationship began when I was 16. My mom introduced me to a lawyer who reflected my image, and it was amazing. She sounded like me, looked like me, and I knew right then and there that my path had been lit.
So many other people have also mentored me along the way, including local leaders, such as the head of the Urban League, attorney Laraine Bryson, who took time after working hard days to sit me down and provide opportunities for me to present and learn from the community.
Mentors often do not always have to reflect one’s image. I have had tremendous male mentors who have provided great support and opportunities to assist in my legal career. Many have been able to help set the stage for my ascension to the bench. Quality mentors oftentimes have the experience that dreamers are seeking.
Surviving in a courtroom involves having dynamic people skills, as a lawyer and as a judge, and my mentors were there when I won and when I lost.
What advice would you give women who aspire to become judges?
First, I would ask them to close their eyes and imagine someone who is a judge. If they don’t look like you, do some research to find someone who actually looks like you and you can look up to.
I don’t think most people would necessarily imagine a female judge when they close their eyes. But the reality is, female judges throughout this country are making tremendous decisions for us and we should be aware that the possibility is there for all women.
Networking is also so important. There is a tremendous responsibility for female attorneys and judges to make sure that we reach out to and are available and present for others.
I often tell young women to make contact and say hello. You will be surprised by the wealth of information that others, who have already walked your path or broken certain barriers, will share with you.
How can lawyers and judges encourage civility in the courtroom?
Civility is a kinder, gentler way of saying, “Please behave as you want others to behave toward you.” It’s that simple.
I think attorneys should consider, “If you had your child or someone that you respect in your family sitting behind you in court, how would you want them to see you behave?”
As a judge, there’s so much information that comes across the bench that sometimes civility feels like a muscle. As with any muscle, you have to work at it. You have to practice it in order to perfect it.
I think some people have set the bar too high and are seeking perfection. Perfection is not what people are seeking; people are seeking respect.
I would ask that lawyers and judges welcome individuals to the courthouse and note that when they leave, their behavior and reputation do not just stay in that courtroom.
Our Commissioner Spotlights recognize the judges, lawyers, and educators from across Illinois who serve as our Commissioners. Check out more interviews with our current and past Commissioners here.
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