In recognition of Pride Month, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism will feature biographies of LGBTQ+ legal professionals who have promoted a culture of civility and inclusion within the Illinois legal community. This week we profile Judge Nancy Katz, the first openly lesbian judge in Illinois. Earlier this month, we featured Pearl Hart and Thomas Chiola.
Katz dedicated her career to advocating for justice on behalf of underserved communities in Illinois. However, this passion began long before her legal career. As an undergraduate at Northeastern Illinois University, Katz studied sociology and criminal justice. During this time, she worked in a domestic violence shelter in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. In addition to her service at the shelter, she staffed a crisis intervention hotline for Women In Crisis Can Act (WICCA). These experiences pointed her toward a career in law.
Katz graduated from Northeastern Illinois with high honors in 1997 and was accepted at IIT’s Chicago-Kent College of Law. While at Chicago-Kent, Katz was active with the Take Back the Night Coalition, the Greenhouse Shelter for Women and the Uptown Center Hull House Domestic Violence Task Force. She also was a staff member of the Chicago-Kent Law Review and served as an extern to Judge William Hart. During her J.D. program, Katz was the recipient of American Jurisprudence Awards in labor law and criminal law. Nancy Katz graduated second in her class from Chicago-Kent in 1983.
After graduating from Chicago-Kent, Katz worked for three years as a staff attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago (LAF), now Legal Aid Chicago. While at LAF, Katz represented clients in administrative hearings and in state and federal court. Her worked focused on housing law, public benefits, family law, social security, and unemployment compensation law.
After a stint as an ethics lawyer for the American Bar Association’s Center for Professional Responsibility, Katz returned to LAF as Foundations Director of its social security advocacy project. In this role, she provided public benefits advocacy for clients with HIV/AIDS and mental health issues.
In 1995, Katz was named Assistant General for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. During this time, she supervised attorneys representing DCFS in child abuse and neglect cases in juvenile court. It was in this role that Katz decided to seek out a judicial position.
In 1999, Katz was appointed Associate Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court. With this appointment, Katz became the first lesbian judge in Illinois.
Katz quickly moved from traffic court to the domestic relations division, where she worked for 17 years before retiring in 2017.
Katz recalled her time on the bench during a Windy City Times interview saying,
“I was surprised at how collegial [most of] the judges were. They were very welcoming – much more than I expected. I knew that being out was a very important thing. For them, it ‘normalized’ gay people in a way they hadn’t experienced before. The task was not as hard as it could have been. From the top down, there was a very concerted effort to be a very diverse and welcoming bench.”
Katz credits Judges Sebastian Patti and Tom Chiola, the first openly gay men on the Illinois bench, for paving the way for LGBTQ+ judges.
Volunteerism and Awards
During her time on the bench, Katz continued to volunteer in the community. She helped produce the 17th Annual Women and the Law Conference, served as a board member of IMPACT, and belonged to the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago.
In addition, she was a member of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues and served on the advisory board of the Cook County Hospital’s Women and Children with AIDS Project.
Katz’s achievements in law didn’t go unnoticed. In 2000, Katz was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame. She received the Vanguard Award in 2000, the Law School Association of Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Professional Achievement Award in 2001, and was selected by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers for the prestigious Samuel S. Berger Award in 2013.
Know an Illinois legal leader who should be profiled as part of our Pride Month series? Let us know in the comments below!