- Elisa “Emo” Overall is the first executive director of the Colorado Access to Justice Commission, taking on that role in March 2021
- Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, she grew up between Arizona and Mexico and graduated from the University of Denver’s law school
- Worked in private practice representing indigent defendants and prior to that managed San Miguel County’s Physical Education Program Grant
- She authored a report released in March that highlighted multiple barriers for self-represented litigants in understanding and accessing civil court proceedings
Colorado Politics: When did you decide to become a lawyer?
Elisa Overall: I decided to become a lawyer when I was working with migrants and immigrants in southwest Colorado. There was this building that was the only low-income building in the region and it was a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-subsidized structure. It was infested with mold, and this had been an ongoing problem that management had been painting over for years and years.
Finally, the building was condemned. This was about 2010 and I was working for a nonprofit to support the region’s immigrant community, and they mostly lived in this building. So, suddenly this huge group of people had nowhere to live but also no money to pay the next security deposit. The building owners were withholding the security deposits from the previous leases.
So, I was on the phone, calling and trying to get in touch with the owners in California, really getting no response and beating my head against the wall. I got in touch with one of the lawyers in the region who I knew, and he said, “Let me take this pro bono.” He had one of his associates write this beautiful letter, strongly worded but very professional, and within a week the security deposits started rolling in to the tenants.
I just thought, “You know what? I think it’s time for a career change. I would like to be able to help people like that.”
CP: Because of a realization that lawyers can get things done by nature of representing the law and the threat of consequences?
Overall: Yeah, knowledge of the law is really powerful. It can empower people who really deserve a voice and who are being taken advantage of.
CP: Can you walk through how you went from southwest Colorado to the Access to Justice Commission?
Overall: From there, I ended up applying to law school. I didn’t know that many lawyers, but I applied to DU law and was awarded a full-tuition scholarship. My husband and I moved to Denver, and I graduated in 2017. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to use this degree.
My initial career was in criminal appeals and I knew that would be a very good place to learn a lot about the law, become a much better writer, and that’s exactly what happened. I was able to do that for a few years, but when I saw the job description for this position, which came about in early 2021, I thought, “That’s it. That’s the one.”
I always thought with my law degree, I wanted to hone in on policy and make systemic changes. At the time I went to law school, I didn’t know what “access to justice” meant. But those were the words for the reason why I went to law school.
CP: What is the relationship of the commission to the Judicial Department? Does it exist under the Supreme Court like other committees or is it independent?
Overall: It’s totally independent. The Supreme Court has its own array of committees, but the commission is not beholden to the court. When I speak with “Sherlocks”—
CP: These are self-represented litigant coordinators?
Overall: Yes, when I have conversations with them and family court facilitators, they are not speaking to someone who they report to. It is within the spirit of professional development. There isn’t the stick, there’s just the carrot!
Justice (Gregory) Hobbs was intimately involved in the initial creation of the commission. And I think this is really a vision that he shared with other access to justice advocates nationwide, which was, if we can create a space where leaders from the courts, legal aid, private bar and government come together to speak about macro issues statewide, each one brings their own expertise. Then we can really get somewhere.
Everyone is part of this space of creating bigger statewide solutions because they care.
CP: I know you came in as the first staff hire. Do you get a sense of what effect a budget and a director had on the commission’s work?
Overall: From what people tell me, I think it’s made all the difference. We’ve been able to do, just in one year, what would otherwise take five to 10 years to do something – like a listening tour around the state and create a report.
I was stopped by a neighbor yesterday who was not in the legal field and said, “I read you report and really liked it.” I was floored, but I think this reach was possible by having somebody just paid and dedicated to supporting the work of a large group of passionate volunteers.
Also, this is the first time we can stop and think about what programs we want to do. Our core function is to convene entities who have an interest in a fair justice system and have all the entities together to do the work. But now it’s actually possible for the commission to do some of the work.
CP: This is all focusing on the civil justice system. Why are we excluding the criminal system?
Overall: The line is not quite as stark. I think there is a lot of crossover between civil and criminal. Nationwide, access to justice tends to focus on civil because there is no “civil Gideon” in a widespread way.
CP: Can you explain that term, referring to the Gideon v. Wainwright decision?
Overall: Sure. The fact is that if you find yourself needing to use the justice system, it could be a matter that deeply or profoundly impacts your life, like a divorce or custody issue or a housing issue. Yet you may have absolutely no access or right to access any kind of professional assistance to help you navigate an extremely complex system.
The fact that one does not have a right to state-appointed counsel if they cannot afford counsel means there’s a whole lot of people who have to navigate the justice system on their own. It was built by lawyers, it wasn’t built with the everyday person in mind.
I think it’s right that we obviously have the right to appointed counsel in criminal cases, but the fact is those only account for about 30% of the cases filed in the state. Seventy percent were civil. Even things like name changes and driver licenses are things that have huge implications for one’s entire life, and they may have to try to figure out how to do that alone.
CP: From your report, do you believe we have one civil justice system in Colorado? Can I walk into a courtroom in Denver for a small claims or eviction case and have the same result or see the same process as if I were in southwestern Colorado or the Eastern Plains?
Overall: No, I don’t. That is what we hold ourselves up to be, a state with a unified court system. But what the procedures are in actuality are very idiosyncratic from judge to judge and from region to region.
That is hugely problematic and something that our commission strives to work on changing over the course of time. I have learned in my one year of being director that the Supreme Court of Colorado interprets our constitution to give each judicial officer the power to be the master of his or her own court, essentially making the rules for their own court outside of what is expressly forbidden. That has led to some extreme variation between courtrooms.
It is sort of a choose-your-own adventure for self-represented litigants. Most people are not going to face any given type of proceeding multiple times in their life. Most of them, hopefully, will only encounter that type of proceeding once. Without being able to access resources, they have to learn what that specific courtroom, that specific judge’s process is going to be like. It’s trial and error for that one person.
CP: Other than the decentralized nature of the civil justice system, what other obstacles are there to changing the status quo?
Overall: Some obstacles include the nature of the justice system. I think our state court system is not inherently conducive to change. The courts are looking down at their own shoes: They have huge caseloads. They have enormously complex systems. So, conceiving of themselves as a service provider is something that can easily be lost within that charge.
Having an outside entity that has deep and rich connections to the courts, pressing and motivating change, is a really helpful agent. But I think the courts themselves need to be frequently reminded and cognizant of their role, not just as a rule interpreter or an arbiter of justice, but a service provider for people.
CP: Should the court system be solely responsible for enacting reforms that increase uniformity in access? Or are there certain actions the legislative or executive branches could take beyond providing money?
Overall: I have noticed some things. For example, our state is the only state in the nation that calls our evictions “FEDs.”
CP: Forcible entry and detainer.
Overall: There is nothing intuitive about FED! The reason it’s called FED is because our General Assembly decided to name these types of actions that. The General Assembly, I think, has a very obvious and simple role to play in just the way that it essentially conceives of its role in creating laws.
If you’re going to name a law something that only trained professionals can recognize, then you’ve obviously signaled you do not have the right audience in mind. Keeping the everyday Coloradan in mind as the audience, I think, is a really important framework to start with.
As our commission becomes more sophisticated in its interaction with the legislature, we will hopefully have more helpful recommendations to bridge that gap. I know there is a strong role to play other than money.
CP: From all the recommendations in the report, what are all the things that can be realistically done in the next six months that would have a significant impact on access to civil justice?
Overall: Things that the General Assembly can do this session: increasing their funding of the immigrant defense fund and eviction legal defense fund and the Family Violence Justice Fund.
In terms of the Judicial Department, I think the judiciary is self-motivated right now to prioritize remote appearances as an access to justice tool. There’s also a good amount of federal funding for that.
We have made these recommendations knowing that this is the first of many, probably, reports. So, we are starting with the softballs. But some that will take more pushing, for example: training so that courthouse staff do conceive of themselves as service providers. That will be a long-term quest.