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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. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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