If Judge G. Michael Witte hadn’t tried for the appellate bench about two years ago, he might not be in the position
now to be Indiana’s newest chief of lawyer ethics.
But fate took him away from being an elected Dearborn Superior judge and put him on a different path of senior judging and national leadership, before capping his 25-year judicial career with news that he’s now the new executive secretary of the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission.
The state’s highest court chose him for the post May 7, about four months after executive secretary Don Lundberg left the post after 18 years for private practice.
Witte, who starts his duties June 21, will be responsible for supervising a staff agency that investigates and prosecutes attorney disciplinary cases. He’ll take over for Seth Pruden, the longtime disciplinary attorney who’s been interim executive secretary since the beginning of the year.
“I’m ready for what I call my second season of service,” the 53-year-old Witte said. “I thought this would be a logical next step, an opportunity for me to meld all my professional experiences into one executive administrative position.”
A 1982 graduate of Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, Witte practiced with Douglas R. Denmure in Aurora. He then worked as a deputy prosecuting attorney before taking the bench in 1985 in the Dearborn County Court. He was the first Asian-American to serve as a judge in Indiana, and he served in that role until 2000 before he transitioned to Dearborn Superior 1, serving there through 2008.
In late 2007, Judge Witte applied for an opening on the state’s second highest appeals court after Judge John Sharpnack
announced his retirement. Judge Witte was one of the three finalists forwarded to the governor for consideration, but Judge
Elaine Brown was ultimately chosen. Judge Witte was up for re-election in 2008 and his opponent in the primary election used
his appellate bench application to help garner more votes in the election.
When reflecting on his appellate seat application and election loss, Judge Witte affirmed that the line of events likely sealed his fate to become the state’s newest executive secretary.
“That may be a fair assessment,” he said with a laugh.
Witte in March 2009 served for about four months as full-time Wayne Superior 1 judge, replacing Judge P. Thomas Snow who’d been named chairman of the state’s Alcohol & Tobacco Commission. Since then he’s been serving as senior judge in various counties throughout the state. That has helped him keep his skills sharp, he said.
He has also been serving in other state and national leadership roles. He’s currently vice chair of the American Bar Association Judicial Division and a nationally recognized speaker about diversity in the judiciary. Witte has also served on Indiana’s interim legislative Commission on Courts from 2005 to 2007, was a three-year judicial fellow for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, served as chair of the ABA’s National Conference of Specialized Court Judges, and was on the Congressional Advisory Committee for Commercial Driver’s License.
Witte started teaching with the National Judicial College in Nevada in 1994 and has taught courses nationally and internationally through the years, as well.
Though he won’t be senior judging anymore, this new position doesn’t change his role with the ABA; he begins his duties as the Judicial Division chair in 2011 as he’ll mark another Asian-American first.
Combined with his service on the bench, Witte said that background has given him a chance to gain experience in the attorney ethics and discipline areas. Most recently, he’s been involved with drafting the model Code of Judicial Conduct the ABA, and various states – including Indiana – have adopted. He’s also participated in ethical discussions about such topics as judicial disqualification following the United States Supreme Court Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal decision in 2009.
“Academically, that’s part of my involvement,” he said. “But just as a trial judge, we’re all on the front lines of patrolling attorney conduct. We either see it before us in the heat of battle in contentious litigation, or we see it in tension-filled pleadings. It’s one of those things we experience quite regularly and sometimes must step in and referee to bring attorneys back to focus.”
Those making the selection praised his past experience preparing him for this new post.
“Mike Witte has dedicated his career to public service, and I am pleased he will spend the next chapter of his legal career leading the Discipline Commission,” Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard said. “He is well known to attorneys across Indiana as thoughtful and fair and energetic.”
In a prepared statement about Witte’s appointment, Disciplinary Commission chair and North Vernon attorney Corinne Finnerty praised the judge’s broad range of judicial leadership experience at both the state and national level and said the nine-member commission is confident he’ll use his management skills to “ensure the integrity of the Indiana legal profession is maintained.”
During the search and interview process, Finnerty on behalf of the commission declined to speak even generally about the process in order to respect applicants’ privacy. She instead referred comment to Supreme Court public information officer Kathryn Dolan, who said there was little guidance about the procedure because it’s only the third time in nearly 40 years that it has happened.
Before this transition, Lundberg began as executive secretary in December 1991 after taking over for Sheldon A. Breskow, who’d served since Jan. 3, 1977. Before that, Lundberg recalled that a handful of individuals served shorter terms following the Disciplinary Commission’s creation in 1971 and served almost as place keepers.
When his application process was under way in the early ’90s, Lundberg recalled the entire process took a maximum of four months. He remembers an interview before the full commission with about 10 other applicants, and that he later had a second interview with the commission chair at the time, Ice Miller partner Dan Kelley. Lundberg was in that position by Dec. 2, 1991 and served until starting as partner and deputy general counsel with Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis.
Once Lundberg announced his retirement in November 2009, Dolan said the commission immediately started its search for a new executive secretary. Members received 24 applications by the Jan. 29 application deadline, and they narrowed that list to 10 people and began interviews in April, Dolan said.
Neither the court nor Disciplinary Commission answered questions about whether a single name or list of finalists was submitted to the court for consideration. Witte said he’d applied before the January deadline, had his first interview with the full commission in early April, and had a second interview before the Supreme Court on the morning of May 6. The court selected him the following day.
He received a call about the selection and accepted the appointment while attending an ABA Judicial Division leadership planning meeting in Lexington, Ky. Saying that he’s honored by the appointment, Witte plans to spend the next month wrapping up his senior judging duties and personal details before he moves from Dearborn County to Indianapolis.
Witte doesn’t want to delve into any specifics that he may address once taking the position, saying that like any new administrator he’ll first inventory and assess current operations and procedures before making any decisions.
But one issue that could get some attention might be a topic he’s addressed periodically in the past, including during his 2007 second interview for the appellate bench. He mentioned that mandatory CLE could involve minimum hours devoted to understanding character traits and dynamics of drug addiction, chemical dependency, alcoholism, and alcohol abuse – all topics some states require.
“That’s something I’ve brought up several times during my career when it’s been appropriate,” he said. “The whole profession needs to have understanding of dependency because it impacts so much of our legal profession.”•