Campus & Community

Legal Reform: IAALS celebrates 10 years of improving the U.S. legal system

Rebecca Love Kourlis started the DU-based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System in 2006, after a 10-year stint as a Colorado Supreme Court justice.

Rebecca Love Kourlis started the DU-based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System in 2006, after a 10-year stint as a Colorado Supreme Court justice.

The American legal system is known for many things — for crowded dockets and lengthy appeals, for citizen jurors and cases too often settled because of budget concerns — but being user-friendly isn’t one of them.

For the last decade, Rebecca Love Kourlis and the University of Denver’s Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) have been working to change that. And by all accounts, they’re making headway.

Kourlis started the DU-based institute in January 2006, after a 10-year stint as a Colorado Supreme Court justice.

“While I was on the Supreme Court, I spent a lot of time examining the legal system. I thought a lot about systems in general and how they could be improved,” Kourlis says. “We started talking in 2004 about how there were no think tanks around the country devoted to improving the legal system and also no entity that could take ideas and put them in place to see if they would work.”

After conversations among Kourlis, Chancellor Emeritus Daniel Ritchie and John Moye, founding partner of Moye|White LLP, IAALS began to take shape.

“We started working with [former DU chancellor] Bob Coombe to form the organization’s structure, and our ranks quickly expanded to include support from Charles Gates, whose Gates Frontiers Fund remains a principal investor in IAALS,” Kourlis says.

Since then the organization has become a revolutionary force in the U.S. legal system, ushering in long-overdue and much-needed change. IAALS focuses on four areas: ensuring quality judges to serve on U.S. courts; advancing reform in legal education; helping families get fairer processes related to divorces, separations and custody; and improving overall civil court processes.

IAALS has some high-powered names on its advisory committee to help with these initiatives, including retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

IAALS also holds periodic summits on civil justice reform, bringing in national legal leaders to share and discuss ideas. The latest meeting in February focused on “creating the just, speedy, and inexpensive courts of tomorrow.” The event was tied to IAALS’ Rule One Initiative, which promotes access to justice, an efficient court process and more accountability.

“In many jurisdictions around the country today, the civil justice system takes too long and costs too much,” says Karen Mathis, IAALS’ deputy executive director and former president of the American Bar Association “The American civil justice system does not serve litigants well. That’s why we were thrilled when, in his year-end report on the state of the judiciary, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts called for a culture change.”

 As she looks back over the last decade, Kourlis says she is especially proud of the practical impact IAALS has had on the system. “We’ve been able to make changes in civil procedure at both the state and federal levels — changes that are now working for the benefit of litigants.”

Another high point: creating the Center for Out-of-Court Divorce, which began as an IAALS pilot program on the DU campus and is now a freestanding nonprofit. The first-of-its-kind center opened last fall in Denver. By working in partnership with the legal system, it offers financial and legal education, mediation and individual and family counseling. Families benefit from a more amicable way to reach a divorce in a more nurturing setting for kids and families.

Kourlis also is grateful to DU for hosting IAALS. “The University has given us a platform and the opportunity to bring people on campus from around the nation to work on these issues,” she says. “And the chancellors have been supportive beyond any reasonable expectations. I just feel so much gratitude.”

Looking to the future, Kourlis says she sees IAALS continuing to work on civil justice and cultural change at local levels in individual jurisdictions around the country. IAALS will look at problems that can be solved in the administrative law arena and at how systems should operate at the federal and state levels. The organization also is examining the growing area of arbitration. “We’re studying that,” she says, “and it’s possible we can devise some projects around that.”

But Kourlis says it’s key for IAALS to stay true to its roots. “Our stock in trade is trust. We don’t have an agenda other than a system that serves. We want people to feel comfortable coming to us and working with us.”

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