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2023 Distinguished Alumni- Sarah Toney

Sarah E. Toney, class of 1996
“I love what I do because I get to help good people who might have 
made a mistake, and it should not be a mistake they have to carry with 
them for the rest of their lives.”
                                                                                   ~Sarah Toney


Sarah Toney remembers always wanting to stand up for what is right. As a middle school student she wrote a letter to the editor of the West Chicago Press advocating a YES vote for a school referendum on the upcoming election ballot. By 2011 at age 32, she had established her own criminal defense law firm. In 2014 Sarah was named Young Lawyer of the Year by the Illinois Bar Association, the same organization she now serves as Treasurer and for which she is a 2024 candidate for Third Vice President, the office next in line to the President of ISBA. 

During the summer following her first year of law school, Sarah accepted a law clerk position at a criminal defense firm. The lead lawyer, who traveled frequently, handed her a murder case, and trusted Sarah to build the defense of their client. She took a deep dive, organizing thousands of pages of evidence. Their client was found “not guilty” and the victim’s wife of 3 months, who was to receive $1,000,000 in insurance benefits, was then viewed as the correct suspect.

In September of 2016, Sarah left her solo practice in Chicago for 30 days to attend the prestigious Trial Lawyers College in Dubois, Wyoming led by Gerry Spence. The experience was life-changing. “You give up your cell phone, learn how to love your client, and become vulnerable,”  Sarah said.  At graduation 4 weeks later she was asked to join their teaching staff.  

In 2020, she was appointed by the Governor of Illinois to the Forensic Task Force as the only private attorney to examine the efficiency of Illinois crime labs. The revisions her subcommittee proposed were implemented immediately, and within 6 months the infamous backlog at Illinois crime labs decreased. 

During Covid, Judge Timothy C. Evans appointed Sarah to the Chief Judges Committee of the Circuit Court of Cook County Domestic Violence Court where she helped establish 24/7 access to orders of protection for survivors of domestic violence. Strategies were also implemented to address the backlog of Order of Protection and Stalking cases. 

Also in 2020, Sarah helped draft a revision to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 415 which allowed police reports and all relevant evidence to be shared with defendants. Previously, all evidence was kept solely with the attorney who was required to sit in the jail cell with the defendant just to review the reports. As a result, defendants were permitted, with court permission, copies of the evidence for their cases.

As adjunct professor at Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, Sarah taught in the Life After Innocence Clinic where students represented real clients and appeared at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse. In addition she taught Legal Writing and Advanced Writing for Criminal Law at the Law School.

She has served as ISBA Newsletter Editor for 15 years for the Traffic Laws & Courts section council, and while Chair, her council drafted legislation to mandate video recordings of all traffic stops, legislation that eventually became law. 

Sarah serves on the Justice Foundation, the charitable arm of the DUI Defense Lawyers Association, awarding scholarships to seminars for lawyers unable to advance their skills due to financial constraints. She also serves on the board of the Illinois Bar Foundation’s Lawyers Care Committee. During Covid alone this committee granted 50 awards to lawyers or their families   in need due to the pandemic.

Sarah has appeared on NBC 10pm News and Court TV to discuss current criminal cases and was named a Top 50 Woman Lawyer and a Top 100 Lawyer by Super Lawyers.

During high school at West Chicago Community District 94, Sarah Toney gained valuable experience in Future Business Leaders of America, the French Foreign Exchange Program, and the Track & Field Team. She was a member of National Honor Society, the Honor Roll and was elected Class Treasurer. She credits the Government Simulation Program, where she was elected Minority Floor Leader by her peers, with opening her eyes to the real possibility of changing things for the better.

“Teachers like Ms. Laimins, Mr. Leitner, Mr. Arnold and Mr. Reimer 
really helped shape who I became. They were invested in my growth 
and helped me form the viewpoints I still hold today. They made 
me feel like they cared about who I was and who I would become.”
Sarah Toney

The CHS Educational Foundation and West Chicago Community High School are honored to present Sarah E. Toney, Class of 1996, with the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award for Restorative Justice.