The word “stop” does not appear to have been in Laura Liu’s vocabulary — not as a judge and not as a mother.
“No matter how exhausted she was, she would never let her illness interfere with her being a mom,” said her husband, Michael J. Kasper.
Liu, a justice on the 1st District Appellate Court, died on Friday following a five-year battle with breast cancer. She was 49.
The disease — and the treatments she took to fight it — never slowed her down, according to her family and her friends.
She was there every step of the way in raising their 7-year-old daughter Sophie, Kasper said, whether it was teaching her how to speak Mandarin or how to play the piano.
“No matter what accolades people have given her about her professional accomplishments, they pale in comparison to how she was as a mom,” Kasper said.
Liu’s tenacity came across in the courtroom, where her colleagues on the bench and in private practice described her as a very cerebral, intelligent jurist who understood the humanity of the law.
“That’s how we’re supposed to do it, and that was very instinctive and very natural of her,” said Cook County Associate Judge James E. Snyder.
As a 1st District justice, Liu wrote the divided majority opinion in Szafranski v. Dunston, 2015 IL App (1st) 122975, a groundbreaking case brought by a man against his ex-girlfriend seeking to prevent her from having a child through frozen pre-embryos he fertilized.
In the case of first impression, Liu found Jacob Szafranski made an oral agreement with Karla Dunston that allowed her to have his child when he provided his sperm.
Liu’s opinion stands after both the Illinois and U.S. Supreme Courts denied Szafranski’s petition to appeal.
But her colleagues said her greatest impact on the law will be her work in breaking down language barriers for non-English-speaking litigants.
“It’s easy to change a law or write an opinion,” Snyder said. “To change legal culture itself is not an easy thing, and that goes on.”
Liu was a native Mandarin speaker, born to Chinese immigrants in Carbondale in 1966. She spoke very little English when she first started school but graduated from high school as valedictorian.
When she was a Cook County circuit judge, Liu stopped a court proceeding in its tracks when she heard a translator provide what she later described as a sub-par interpretation for a witness.
In 2012, she became the co-chair of the Language Access Committee of the state Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission.
Among the projects she contributed to was the language-access policy the entire Illinois court system now uses.
“She always made sure anything that needed to be done was accomplished,” said Circuit Judge Grace G. Dickler, the other co-chair of the committee.
“Our language-access committee would not be the same without her involvement.”
Every judge in Illinois now has to receive training in the high court’s policy, which Liu helped develop.
“We’ll never look at language access in the same way again,” Snyder said, whom Liu once described as an informal mentor of hers.
First District Justice Mary K. Rochford, who chairs the Access to Justice Commission, said Liu made sure her own court was sensitive to the barriers self-represented litigants faced.
Liu described her own approach to pro se litigants in a July 11, 2012, interview with the Daily Law Bulletin.
She recalled the advice she received from another Cook County judge who, like her at the time, overheard mortgage-foreclosure cases: “This may be the 100th case you’ve heard at the end of the day, but it is this borrower’s first and only case. It’s their most important case, and their only case in front of you.”
Liu graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Law in 1991. In 1998, she began her career in private practice as an attorney for Hogan, Marren Ltd.
She was appointed to an 8th Subcircuit vacancy on the Cook County Circuit Court in December 2010. Six months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Liu described the shock of that diagnosis to the Law Bulletin in her 2012 interview. She wore a wig and makeup in an effort to keep people in her court focused on the case and not her health issues.
If the work became too much, she relied on colleagues in the circuit court’s Chancery Division to handle her afternoon court calls.
By the time of the July 2012 interview, Liu had been cancer free.
Liu’s appointment to the 1st District Appellate Court stemmed from the death of another appellate justice.
Former justice Patrick J. Quinn died in his chambers in January 2014. After some shuffling of seats, Liu was appointed later that month, becoming the first Chinese-American judge to serve on the Illinois Appellate Court. Her term began Feb. 3, 2014, and was set to end Dec. 5.
In separate statements, Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised Liu’s work on the bench and her status as a pioneer in Illinois.
“She was a trailblazer for Chinese-Americans in Illinois, and she was devoted to helping ensure our entire state court system is more user friendly for individuals who don’t speak English as a first language,” Evans said.
Liu’s husband, Kasper, currently serves as general counsel and treasurer for the Illinois Democratic Party.
Kasper previously served as general counsel to Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and was part of a legal team that successfully defended against a residency challenge during Emanuel’s first mayoral run in 2011.
In addition to her husband and daughter, Liu is survived by her parents Yih-Wu and Becky Liu, sister Jessica, brother Eric and in-laws Dennis and Nancy Kasper.
Services will be held at Fourth Presbyterian Church, on 126 E. Chestnut St. on April 25 at 11 a.m.
A scholarship fund at St. Therese Chinese Catholic School has been established in her memory.