“Justice isn’t fairly distributed in this country,” says celebrated matrimonial attorney Jeffery M. Leving, a fierce advocate for fathers and children. Leving was explaining that his quest to distribute justice equally dates not just to his early days in the legal profession, but to his own impoverished childhood on the South Side, where lettuce sandwiches were a staple and mayonnaise on them was a treat. “I saw the struggles my family had, and I saw other families struggle,” he says. “What I always wanted to do was help these families and their children who wouldn’t be able to find help anywhere else. Justice should not be a luxury only the rich can afford.”
Leving’s first direct experience with politics was four decades ago, when he volunteered for Ald. John Merlo, a longtime member of the General Assembly who had been appointed to the City Council, and was running in a special election, ultimately successfully, to keep the seat.
Then, Leving went into family law, and he saw a problem: “When I started out, the system was so biased against fathers,” he says. “I would see fathers lose their children forever. I saw fathers fighting to protect their children against sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse. They struggled and felt they just couldn’t win.”
At the time, Illinois law made no supposition about child custody in a divorce, but most judges placed them with the mother – and the father would have visitation, as it was then called, if lucky and often only on the mother’s say-so. In 1986, Leving co-authored a law to establish real court-ordered joint custody for the first time, working with Bob Kustra, an assistant minority leader in the Illinois Senate who went on to serve as lieutenant governor.
Since then, Leving has had further success in Springfield, making sure both parties be informed of their right to DNA testing before an adjudication of paternity can be made, and establishing it as a criminal offense to deny the other parent their right to parenting time or custody time. He has a legislative agenda now: Beginning custody hearings with the presumption that equal shared parenting is in the best interest of the child, establishing child support accountability, and ending the 9% interest the state levies on child support arrearages.
Leving has attracted legislators to his cause because they agree with his causes and see the injustice he’s attempting to redress.
He served on President Obama’s National Finance Committee, meeting in Washington to brainstorm and share strategy, and observing Chanukah and Christmas at the White House with the president. He has provided legal counsel to aldermen and governors, he lectured at a fatherhood event in Washington with then-Vice President Al Gore, and he maintains strong friendships with Congressman Danny K. Davis and State Rep. LaShawn Ford.
“I want to change the system, which requires changing laws,” Leving says. “If you want to be successful, no matter how noble the cause, you must have lawmakers who respect and trust you. These elected officials would not be drawn to me and these causes if these were not righteous causes.”
Photography by: Gerber+Scarpelli Photography