TOPEKA—District Judge Keven M.P. O’Grady of the 10th Judicial District was recognized for his many contributions to justice system improvement when he was given the 2022 Mary C. McQueen Award at a national conference last week.
The award is given in even numbered years to recognize an “individual who has made extraordinary contributions to improving the administration of justice at the local, state, or national level for a sustained period of time.”
The award was presented to O’Grady July 26 at a joint meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators in Chicago.
“There are few people as deserving of this award as Judge O’Grady,” said Chief Justice Marla Luckert. “He has done phenomenal work to advance access to and improve administration of justice in Kansas courts and in courts across the country.”
Luckert and state court administrator Stephanie Bunten nominated O’Grady for initiatives he launched in his judicial district, starting with a self-help center and night court, and expanded to include the Kansas Protection Order Portal used by district courts statewide.
“Judge O’Grady is not alone in his efforts to improve the administration of justice in Kansas, but he certainly stands out for the depth, breadth, and reach of his efforts,” Bunten said. “What he has done in his court inspires all of us to make improvements where we can.”
While honored to receive the award, O’Grady is quick to turn the spotlight on others.
“I am so grateful to be recognized, but I am thinking about all the people who worked on these projects and how this award is more theirs than mine,” he said.
Starting self-help center
O’Grady had been a judge only a short while when he partnered with a team of judges, clerks, and community stakeholders to create a self-help center for people who come to court without an attorney.
From its inception in 2014 to now, the Johnson County Self-Help Center has provided guidance, assurance, and options to well more than 30,000 court patrons finding their way through the legal system on their own. Its services have also grown from an initial focus on family law to include a variety of legal matters that affect people who cannot afford an attorney, such as evictions, name changes, and small claims.
“We never imagined when we started with a couple of tables and computers in an unused corner of the courthouse that it would evolve into the specifically designed space we have now, in a brand-new courthouse,” O’Grady said.
The current state-of-the-art center has several computer terminals for completing forms, private rooms for volunteer attorneys to meet with litigants, and “Zoom rooms” for people who need to appear for a remote hearing but lack the necessary technology to appear from home.
Job satisfaction for court employees
O’Grady noted an unexpected benefit of the self-help center was the job satisfaction it brought to court employees who staff it.
“Working in the self-help center takes a special skillset,” O’Grady said. “People are stressed, and you really have to listen to be able to figure out what they need. Our employees who work in the self-help center find it meaningful to provide that help without giving legal advice.”
He also jokes the self-help center has “more hugs per square foot than any other space in the courthouse.”
O’Grady shared his insights about starting the self-help center in a 2015 Court Review article that continues to serve as a reference for courts in the early stages of starting their own self-help centers.
A spinoff of the project were easy-to-understand forms, which O’Grady says are the bedrock of the self-help center. These forms were later used by the Kansas Supreme Court Access to Justice Committee as a model to develop forms for use in courts statewide by people who do not have an attorney.
Another spinoff was the first court resource navigator position in a Kansas court. The navigator connects court users with needed community resources, dispute resolution services, or other resources, recognizing that legal needs are often intertwined with basic life needs.
Starting night court
In 2016, O’Grady worked with the self-help center to begin night court one evening a month for people who struggle to get to the courthouse during the day. When people arrive for night court, court employees verify they have all required paperwork and volunteer attorneys meet with the parties to verify the paperwork is complete. Judges sign documents to resolve the cases, and a court clerk files the documents and gives parties their certified copies before they leave.
O’Grady was invited to describe the night court program to a national audience through a National Center for State Courts TinyChat, which are short video programs for courts nationwide.
Providing service during the pandemic
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Grady and the self-help center staff took steps that enabled them to continue to provide help remotely. This shift included using remote options to answer questions, deliver forms, and connect people to the court system.
It was during this time O’Grady connected the Office of Judicial Administration with staff of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law to create the Kansas Protection Order Portal, a website that allows people to file online for protection from abuse, stalking, or human trafficking from a safe location.
Now, nearly half of all applications for protection orders in court statewide are filed using the portal.
About Judge O’Grady
O'Grady was appointed judge in Johnson County District Court in 2012.
Before becoming a judge, he practiced law in Overland Park. He earned a bachelor's degree from Rockhurst College in 1984 and a law degree from the University of Kansas School of Law in 1987.
O'Grady has chaired the Kansas Child Support Guidelines Advisory Committee since July 2020 and the Kansas Advisory Council on Dispute Resolution since August 2017. He was a member of the Kansas Supreme Court Access to Justice Committee from August 2008 to July 2013.
About the Mary McQueen Award
Named in honor of Mary McQueen, the president of the National Center for State Courts since 2004, the award recognizes an individual who has made extraordinary contributions to improving the administration of justice at the local, state, or national level for a sustained period of time. The award is given jointly by the Conference of Chief Justices, Conference of State Court Administrators, National Association for Presiding Judges and Court Executive Officers, and the National Association for Court Management.