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Amish advocates

October 9, 2013
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It is rare that members of northern Indiana’s Amish communities have a need for legal representation. When they do, they turn to a neighbor they know and trust.

“I’ve got a lot of Amish clients,” said Richard Muntz, whose office on U.S. 20 outside LaGrange sees its share of passing horse-drawn buggies. Muntz also lives on a farm with Amish neighbors where he raises Highland beef cattle.
 

amish-15col.jpg Horses and buggies are hitched outside the courthouse in LaGrange County, where attorneys who work with Amish clients say familiarity builds trust. (IL Photo/ Dave Stafford)

“They go by the farm and they see me out working with livestock and such,” Muntz said. “Like anybody else, you speak somebody’s language, that makes everyone comfortable.”

Muntz estimated about 20 to 30 percent of his clients are Amish, and he and other attorneys said a small group of lawyers represent clients among the approximately 20,000 people who live in the Elkhart-LaGrange settlement, the world’s third-largest.

Indiana Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, is among those who count a significant number of Amish clients in her hometown law practice. She went to elementary school in Shipshewana with Amish classmates, and her grandparents belonged to an Amish order before becoming Mennonites.

“What happens is when (Amish) know they have an attorney they can trust and they’re comfortable with, they will go back to that attorney,” Glick said. “Word of mouth is tremendous in an area this size.”

Glick said patience is important when counseling Amish clients whose inclination is to follow biblical teachings of turning the other cheek.

“If you’re not attuned to the Amish, you tend to become frustrated with trying to give them advice, because you say to an ‘English’ client, ‘You can file suit,’” Glick said, using the term Amish typically use to refer to outsiders. “With an Amish person, the first thing you’re going to rule out is legal action. You approach it differently.”

For the most part, Amish people do what they must in the legal system, attorneys say. Matters brought to lawyers primarily involve estates and wills, real estate matters and tax assistance. But there also is the occasional Amish divorce.

Leon Yoder of Shipshewana grew up in an Amish household but now is Mennonite. Yoder runs a sign shop and promotes an event center that markets locally made goods. He said most Amish would never initiate a lawsuit but will protect their interests.

Yoder remembered an incident from his childhood in which a horse pulling a carriage he was driving broke loose and ran into a car causing damage.

“I remember dad did go to a local attorney to have him represent him,” Yoder said. “His intended goal was, he wanted to make things right.”

Family matters

Growing up among Amish neighbors and working on Amish farms as a boy gave Richard W. Rogers of Middlebury credibility when he became an attorney. “I kind of felt like I understood their lifestyle,” he said, the center of which is family.

Rogers said about 20 percent of his clients are Amish, and they participate with reluctance in legal matters. “I do think there’s an element of mistrust, and they do have to feel comfortable with you,” he said.

Amish life is organized around church districts, and each is governed by “Ordnung.” Those rules establish, among other things, the kinds of modern amenities permitted in each district, according to David Friedman, a professor of law at Santa Clara University.

“The Amish have serious reservations with regard to the legal system, I think largely because their pacifism extends to not wanting to impose criminal punishments,” according to Friedman, who included a chapter about Amish law in his forthcoming book, “Legal Systems Very Different from Ours.”

A nod to tradition can be seen in the land contracts Muntz prepares for Amish clients. He noted a provision in those agreements reflecting the family ties that bind generations.

“My land contract forms have paragraphs in them that say the sale includes a life estate,” Muntz said. Properties usually have two or more houses on them, and when a retiring generation sells to a subsequent generation, care of the elders is part of the deal, Muntz explained.

Glick said most Amish properties have what’s called a “Dawdy House” where the older generation lives after the sale of a property. She said Amish clients are likelier than most to have made decisions about such things before they consult an attorney.
 

amish-richard-muntz-15col.jpg Attorney Richard Muntz of LaGrange says Amish clients are frequently targeted by scammers who threaten to report them to their community’s religious leaders if they fail to pay some claim. “It happens all the time,” Muntz said. (IL Photo/ Dave Stafford)

“I think they try and stay within where they are, within their church, within their relationships,” Glick said. “They pretty much know where they want to be.”

Amish clients also take pains to make sure that estates are divided evenly among heirs, so that if one child is buying the farm, for instance, other children get an equitable share of the estate, Glick added.

In his practice, Rogers also occasionally serves as a public defender, and he said Amish sometimes have an involuntary introduction to the legal system. “You see a lot of these Amish kids in LaGrange court on drug and alcohol charges,” he said. Even then, he sees a system that appears to recognize the unusually close ties.

“My assessment is the court somehow deals with disposing of those cases a little differently,” Rogers said. “They take that Amish background and close-knit nature of the families into account.”

On the defensive

Because Amish avoid legal confrontation, attorneys say that’s left them vulnerable to scams, and there are operators who specifically prey on the community.
 

rogers-richard.jpg Rogers

Attorneys offered as an example traveling salesmen who pitch high-priced trust and estate documents, often accompanied by free gifts whose value is highly overstated. These pitches frequently use scare tactics including the specter that the state may take their land if they don’t act.

Rogers said of his Amish clients, “They’re not as reluctant (to go to court) as you think they are when it comes to being swindled.”

Amish clients have entrusted Rogers to protect their interests, for instance, when a client came to him and complained about a salesman who’d come to the area selling hearing aids for several thousand dollars that turned out to be substandard.

Rogers said he’s also been able to go after unscrupulous “living will” peddlers who charge several thousand dollars for work any attorney could have done for a few hundred. “I’ve encountered a number of clients who’ve been involved in those,” he said. “It’s completely absurd.”

A common misconception, attorneys said, is that Amish won’t pursue damages in court. While the order typically shuns insurance, members are not opposed to pressing claims when they’ve been injured, for instance.

Dorothy Yoder is Amish and said she was hurt in an accident many years ago and retained Scott VanDerbeck when the insurance company didn’t compensate her. Yoder said the process took longer than it should have, but she was satisfied with the outcome.


vanderbeck-scott.jpg VanDerbeck

VanDerbeck, who now has been LaGrange Circuit Judge for 17 years, said while about 40 percent of the county’s population is Amish, “they don’t constitute 40 percent of the cases by any stretch of the imagination.”

Muntz said he’s been contacted in the past by worried Amish clients who relay that someone has threatened to report them to their bishop if they fail to pay some claim.

“It happens all the time,” Muntz said. “I tell them, this is, or this is not, a legitimate demand, and if it’s not a legitimate demand, I suggest to them, OK, if the bishop gives you a hard time, tell them to call me.”•

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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