STERLING – One of the law’s most enduring symbols is Lady Justice, blindfolded to prejudice and weighing right and wrong in her scales, a tireless advocate of fairness.
Not unlike the Sauk Valley’s own lady justice, Vicki Wright.
Wright, 59, was elected in November to her second 10-year term as a judge for the Third District Appellate Court, one of seven judges in the district that includes Whiteside County among its 21-county region. It’s the capstone to a career in law that’s spanned decades and built an enduring legacy of fairness, something she first got a taste for at her father’s diner.
As a girl growing up in Sandwich, Wright was informed with a strong sense of right and wrong by her parents. Her father owned Wright's Diner and would never turn away a homeless person. He would give them a meal in exchange for doing a chore, such as sweeping the sidewalk.
It was there that she became accustomed to being around the public and ordinary people who do extraordinary things, like her father, something she’s carried with her into her adult life and that continues to drive her passion for the law.
Wright started her law career as an appellate prosecutor for the Third District Appellate Court in 1982 after graduating from Loyola University School of Law in Chicago. She became an assistant state's attorney in Whiteside County in 1984 and was appointed the first female associate circuit judge for the 14th Judicial Circuit in 1991. She became the first person from Whiteside County elected to the Third District Appellate Court in 2006.
Wright said she credits her career's longevity to her strong work ethic and passion for neutrality.
"Maybe my biggest accomplishment that I’m most proud of is my work ethic," Wright said. "I never – and I say never – had a scheduled afternoon off in my entire judicial career that allowed me to pursue private hobbies."
One week out of every month, Wright travels to the appellate courthouse in Ottawa to hear cases, but most of her time is spent at her Sterling office.
As she looked out of her office window during a recent interview, she said she’s constantly reminded of her small-town upbringing.
Across the street is The Big Red Church, run by Wright’s long-time friend, the Rev. Jeff Coester. Wright and Coester have known each other since attending Sandwich Junior High School, now Herman Dummer Middle School, and both graduated from Sandwich High School, Coester in 1974 and Wright in 1975.
"I love looking over there and knowing that he’s in that building," Wright said. "Life just kind of brought us to the same corner but it tells you a lot about the values that we grew up with."
Coester started at the church in 2008 but he didn't reconnect with Wright until about a year and a half ago after finding her on Facebook.
He said her last name always seemed fitting because she always wanted to do the right thing, marrying that sense of fairness with a grace and spirit that enabled her to treat others with respect.
"She’s one of those people who seems to love to have the opportunity to be an encourager," Coester said.
Wright said she believes her tireless efforts to serve people and a passion for the law is what got her elected to a second term, and she could not be more honored.
"What greater honor is there than somebody who will trust you to be fair?" she said. "That is like the ultimate compliment."
Fairness doesn’t always come easy, though. Wright said she’s noticed an increasing pressure on judges to make both sides in a case happy, but that’s not how the law works.
"I never approached the law that way," Wright said. "When [parties] walk into the courtroom, they put their cards on the table and I think a judge does best when a judge just decides the cases based on the law."
She has tried many cases during her career but there is one she thinks about often. When a young Fulton man was struggling to keep his in-home health care due to insurance coverage issues, she fought on his behalf to allow him to continue attending junior college instead of entering a facility.
The next 10 years are sure to hold a lot for Wright, and she looks forward to helping shape the next generation of lawyers, especially women lawyers.
When Wright was appointed the first female associate circuit judge for the 14th Judicial Circuit, she had no footprints to follow and she said she wishes she knew half of what she knows now.
One thing she stresses to women who apply to be her law clerks is that they are welcome to start a family. Wright, who lives in Tampico with her husband Karl Kovarik, the 911 Coordinator for Whiteside County, and their two high school and college-aged children, said she waited to have kids until later in life because she was so invested in her career. When the time came for Wright to go on maternity leave, she said she felt like she was burdening the male attorneys who had to cover for her.
"So, I tell all the female attorneys that come in here to interview: maternity leave is something that is built into this job. If you want to get pregnant, it’s a given," she said.
Wright sees amazing potential in her current law clerk, Mitch Johnston of Sterling. She said she hopes she can help him learn from her mistakes so he can get the most out of his life in the legal world.
From starting her career on one side of the appellate court bench to ending her career on the other, Wright's life has come full circle, and although her second term just started, she’s already thinking about the fact that she will be almost 70 when her term is up. She said this will probably be her last term – but then again, who knows? She thought the same thing last year before running for appellate judge for a second time.