Most people don’t decide to go to law school on a whim, but for Ramona Sullivan ’96, that is almost exactly how it happened. Her brother, Jude Sullivan ’90 thought she would be a good lawyer and asked her to take the LSAT. They agreed that Jude would pay her testing fee, and if she scored as well or better than he did, she would go to law school.
“Since he had outscored 95% of test takers, I thought I was just promising to show up for the exam. I stopped by St. John’s Catholic Chapel on campus just before the test and asked for a sign about what I was supposed to do with my life. I scored even higher than my brother did,” Ramona said.
(L to R): Ramona, son Michael Ortega (3.5), husband Anthony Ortega '99, daughter Katherine Williams (senior at University High School), and son Matt Williams (2017 U of I graduate)
And so began her law school journey, at the University of Illinois. Ramona was drawn to public interest work almost immediately. She began volunteering at Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance during her first year of law school and was a law clerk there every semester and every summer. She also married her late husband, Lionel Williams the summer after her first year and delivered their first child the summer after her second year.
“I wanted a career that would let me pay my bills, take care of my family, and make a difference in my community,” she said.
Ramona began her career at Land of Lincoln in Decatur and has since spent time at several of their office locations throughout the state. She was in private practice for a short time before going back to Land of Lincoln and is now at the Champaign County Public Defender’s Office.
She has also been a dedicated supporter of the College of Law for over 20 years.
“I love to volunteer at the law school, and I try to support the Class of 1996 Endowment Fund every year. Our class gift provides a stipend to a student who is pursuing a public interest opportunity each summer. I remember presenting the first check to a law student in 2006.
“This past summer, a law clerk at the PD's office noticed my 1996 class picture on the wall and asked me to thank my classmates for paying his rent for the summer. I think it is very important for law students to explore public interest opportunities. Not everyone will become a full-time legal aid attorney. But working with legal aid clients, even for just one summer or one semester, will affect your life forever. You will gain empathy and perspective, and you will be a better lawyer,” she said.
Ramona is currently running for Circuit Judge in the Sixth Judicial Circuit in Champaign County. Having been in court several days each week for over 20 years, she was inspired to pursue the opportunity to create a more balanced bench.
“We need judges with diverse life experiences and judges with diverse career experiences. We need people like me on the bench. It's been a really long time since a Circuit Judge vacancy was on the ballot in Champaign County, and I am not missing this opportunity.
“I can't think of any other attorney in central Illinois with comparable experience and perspective. There are plenty of excellent attorneys who have been career prosecutors or career private attorneys. Those perspectives are important, but they are well represented in the judiciary. We need legal aid attorneys on the bench,” she said.
Ramona feels she would particularly bring a unique, balanced perspective to legal issues surrounding domestic violence. She has represented hundreds of victims of domestic violence seeking protection from their abusers, and hundreds of people accused of crimes related to domestic violence. She has also created community education courses about domestic abuse and consistently volunteered to try to help people learn to avoid becoming victims or abusers.
There is currently a lot of momentum around women running for political office, both at the local and national level, something which is not lost on Ramona.
As of February 2018, there are 14 Circuit Judges in the Sixth Circuit, and only one of them is a woman. Ramona says she wasn’t fully aware of the gender imbalance in the local bench until last summer, when a man was appointed to replace one of the very few female associate judges who had just retired, despite applications from several highly qualified women. At that moment, she made a commitment to run for Circuit Judge.
For most people, working full-time, raising a family, and running a campaign would be enough, but Ramona is also a passionate advocate for a cause that is near and dear to her heart. February is National Marfan Awareness Month, and she works hard to spread awareness of Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition that killed her first husband when he was 31 years old.
“When I was widowed, our son was almost 5 and I was 9 months pregnant. If we had known about Marfan syndrome sooner, Lionel's life would have almost certainly turned out differently. With an early diagnosis, lifestyle changes, and appropriate medical treatment, people with Marfan syndrome can have a 'normal' lifespan. My daughter has Marfan, and she will hopefully grow old. People who are not diagnosed or treated die young. I try to spread awareness to as many people as possible, because I don't want other people to go through what we went through,” she said.
Ramona credits her favorite book, “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O” (by Shel Silverstein) with helping lift her up when she needed it most.
“It helped inspire me when I was a young widow to believe that I could heal, and that I could take care of myself and two children and all of the responsibilities in my life, and that I could even become reasonably happy on my own,” she said.
Today, Ramona offers that same message of hope and inspiration to others, especially young law students.
“A successful career is important, but it is even more important to enjoy your life and protect your integrity. Never forget the big picture.”
*** Visit marfan.org to learn the signs of Marfan syndrome ***