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Recognizing judicial family issues

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When Indiana Justice Brent Dickson joined the state’s highest court more than two decades ago, his wife was unsure whether she could take a specific job in her area of education.

His appointment came in January 1986, and Jan Dickson was hoping to use her education in pioneer family structures to land a position with the Indiana Historical Bureau that had opened up. But a potential conflict existed: the chief justice at the time was a board member of that organization and she didn’t know if it would be appropriate to take that job, given her husband’s new position with the Indiana Supreme Court.

dickson Jan Aikman Dickson (middle) was recently inducted into the Warren E. Burger Society for her work creating the Judicial Family Institute. Also posing with the portrait of Justice Burger are JFI Law and Literature chair Sheryl Washington (left) and JFI secretary/treasurer Roz Smith (right). (submitted photo)

The state’s judicial conduct code at the time didn’t address that issue and no guidance existed, so she didn’t apply. But that led Jan Dickson to begin searching for answers, not only on the issue she’d confronted but many others that raised ethical concerns for judges and their family members in ways that no one had addressed before.

“The judicial code back then was written for male judges and on the assumption that family would just follow the same rules,” Brent Dickson said. “Everyone had shared concerns about these things, but these were sudden surprises that weren’t expected by anyone and hadn’t been addressed.”

The answers were unclear on an array of issues including how spouses could interact when it came to local politics or social activities, how they navigated security in their homes, how children and families might respond when contacted by a reporter or acquaintances about a particular case or issue and what types of jobs or community involvement might present potential conflicts.

Jan Dickson went to work talking about those issues, setting in motion the creation of an organization that during the past quarter century has become a national educational resource instituted in multiple states to help judges, spouses and family members navigate the unique issues they might face.

“Any challenges we face in the context of judicial families is in the context of the importance of administration of justice,” she said.

That work has earned Jan Dickson a prominent place in the country’s legal history books. She was inducted into the Warren E. Burger Society in November. Membership honors those individuals who’ve demonstrated “an exemplary commitment” to the administration of justice through their contributions of service or support to the National Center for State Courts, which former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Burger founded in 1971.

Specifically, she received recognition for creating what has become the Judicial Family Institute, a nonpartisan organization that she began as a corporation with a quarterly newsletter in the late 1980s and with early support from the Indiana Bar Foundation. It became so popular that in 2001, the Conference of Chief Justices formally adopted the program as one of its own committees. The CCJ sponsors educational programs and conferences for the nation’s jurists and their families, with many programs coupled with state and federal judicial conferences. Multiple states also have created their own local efforts.

Jan Dickson recalled one of the earliest ethical issues that she and her husband faced – charitable fundraising – something that many judges and their families encounter on a regular basis. She had been involved in the Tippecanoe County March of Dimes efforts, and the justice’s wife wondered if she could have her name attached to any fundraising letters – especially those going to attorneys – because of her husband’s judicial role. She read and studied national judicial conduct codes addressing that issue.

“It’s been fun to watch the changes over the years and see how the judicial codes have evolved to embrace not only the changing judiciary, but their families,” Jan Dickson said.

Through the institute, judges and their families can find information on any number of broad topics: emergency preparedness, ethics, family and children, finances, health and quality of life, high-profile cases, judicial assistance, media interaction, adapting to change on the bench, political life, retirement and home or courthouse security concerns.

The institute’s services are widely sought by judges nationally and statewide, many say. Some issues that arise involve the tough lessons about what a judge and his or family might encounter when interacting in a local community, particularly smaller, more rural areas. Some might face conflicts when attorneys or community members try to befriend or associate with a judge or family member about a legal issue through a community activity or school function, judges say.

“Jan Dickson is the history of the JFI, and her work toward founding and growing the organization has provided an invaluable resource to judges around the country and closer to home,” said Jane Seigel, executive director of the Indiana Judicial Center. “Of course, Indiana’s judicial families have benefited from the JFI’s education and information, but the judges themselves also tell me what an impact Jan’s work has had on their quality of life.”

Many lawyers and judges in Indiana who have a spouse either on the bench or bar say they don’t discuss case specifics with their significant other. Some have a standing order in the firms or court clerks’ offices that trigger an automatic recusal if a lawyer who is the spouse of a judge or sometimes the firm itself is involved in a case before that particular judge.

Michael Hebenstreit, a partner at Whitham, Hebenstreit & Zubek in Indianapolis, said he has that arrangement on cases that might go before his wife, Marion Superior Judge Robyn Moberly. Technically, there’d be no conflict for another firm member to practice in her court, but they’ve just decided “not to go there.” They don’t have many other ethical issues or conflicts that have come up, he said.

“Marion County is big enough where we just kind of blend into the world a little bit better,” he said.

Boone Superior Judge Matt Kincaid learned about dealing with the home front of being a judge long before he took the bench a decade ago. His dad, Warren A. Kincaid III, presided over that same court before he did. The son recalls little things – having a burglar alarm installed for what seemed like no reason, and an apparently “dicey” Marion County case which led to threats and his school being put on notice. But overall, Kincaid said his parents operated mostly as he tries to do: with a balanced perspective at home.

“You always have to be cautious of the appearance of the judiciary,” he said. “It isn’t good enough to just be correct, it has to be 110 percent above board and transparent. That does go into your personal life as a judge.”

Jan Dickson sees the online world and aging judiciary as key issues to discuss in the future. Judges and their families interacting on Facebook and social media has been a concern nationwide, as have discussions about how judges face retirement and what they do after leaving the bench, she said.

Whatever the future holds for the Judicial Family Institute and the Dicksons individually, the justice who is now in his 25th year says the importance of the effort can’t be understated because it goes to the heart of what the legal system is about.

“We’re all in this together and they make us better judges,” he said of judicial family members.•
 

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  1. 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!!!

  2. 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.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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