U. of I. Professor Wins ‘Genius Grant’ for Civil Justice Research

An associate professor of sociology and law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has received a prestigious award for her research on the hurdles low-income communities face when seeking civil justice.

Sociologist Rebecca Sandefur, who’s also an American Bar Foundation faculty fellow, studies how people understand and handle civil justice problems, such as evictions, wage theft and disputes with insurance companies, as well as the legal services and resources to assist with these problems. 

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She’s among 25 MacArthur fellows named publicly by the foundation on Oct. 4.

“It came as a complete surprise,” said Sandefur, who was informed of the honor in late August. “You just don’t think that something like that is going to happen, so my first reaction was just shock.”

Sandefur said most people who face civil justice problems solve them on their own and, in many cases, don’t interpret them as legal matters.

“The most common way that people think about their justice problems in America is as either bad luck or God’s will, Sandefur said. “So it’s: things that have just happened to me or maybe that are supposed to happen to me.”

Since 1981, the MacArthur Fellows Program has selected individuals who display “exceptional creativity” and the potential to advance recipients’ respective fields or industries.

Nicknamed the “genius grant,” fellows receive a “no-strings-attached” $625,000 award over the course of five years.

Sandefur hopes that money can be used for future initiatives to help people as well as raise public awareness about civil justice problems and solutions.

“The issue of civil justice has been off the radar for 40 or 50 years, so this award now brings attention to what’s a really important issue that affects hundreds of millions of Americans every year,” Sandefur said. “I hope this can be seed money for doing some big projects that can show that we can tackle parts of this problem and we can get some traction on it.”

Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia

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Chicago’s MacArthur Fellows on Joining the ‘Genius’ Club

MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grants Awarded to Three Chicagoans

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