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Semifinalists discuss important qualities of a justice

August 8, 2012

The Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission Wednesday interviewed 10 semifinalists to fill the vacancy on the Indiana Supreme Court created by the retirement of Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. Commission chair and Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson opened the interviews by asking each candidate what factors he or she believed the commission should be looking for in a justice.  Below are the first six interviews. The interviews are scheduled to wrap up around 4 p.m.

Delaware Circuit Judge Marianne Vorhees said she had worked with eight different judges, and her experience lent itself to the work of the state high court. “One of most important factors is someone who's open-minded and willing to work with others” and doesn't come to the court with an agenda, she said.

She said independence and a willingness to admit you’re wrong also are important, as well as having someone who’s independent but collegial.  

Commission member Jim McDonald commended Vorhees' “stellar career” but asked why Vorhees, as an elected Democrat, would expect Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels to break tradition and be the first governor to appoint a judge of another party.

“I firmly believe the people of Indiana in the end don't care whether the justice is a Democrat or a Republican,” but instead would expect the justice to be the most qualified, she said.

Vorhees, when asked about a court decision with which she disagreed, cited the Barnes v. State decision, which she believed overreached.

Asked about the importance of diversity, Vorhees said the commission should consider various forms of diversity, including geographic and practice diversity. But she also said gender diversity was important.

“I never had anybody give me something because I'm a woman,” she said. “I think my application is strong and I think it stands on its own.”

Asked whether the end result or law was most important, Vorhees said the law, and cited an example in which a high school student with no criminal record was involved in an armed robbery with other young people and waived into adult court. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years executed at the Department of Correction. “I have absolutely no discretion; my hands are tied,” she said. Even though the penalty didn't seem just, “You don't have any discretion to disregard the law.”

Court of Appeals Judge Cale Bradford said he believed four things were most important in a Supreme Court justice: a broad legal background; superior administrative skills; the ability to make fair and wise decisions; and an exemplary temperament and collegiality skills.

“You need to have patience and respect for others' individual views,” Bradford said.

Bradford said he would bring to the court a breadth of experience in private practice, and as a deputy prosecutor, public defender, trial and appeals court judge. “The largest and most complex cases this state has to offer were the kind of cases I handled,” he said, noting cases involving the state's school funding formula, jail overcrowding and juvenile justice reform.

“I don't think there's any better preparation for being a Supreme Court justice,” Bradford said of his tenure on the COA.

Dickson noted Bradford's prolific work in the court, taking part in more than 2,300 decisions during his tenure, but mentioned that the work of the Supreme Court entailed more joint work among the justices than Bradford might have been accustomed to. Bradford said he would be willing to be where he needed to in order to serve the court and the state.

Commission member William Winingham noted that Bradford's energy and intensity sometimes could come across as less than congenial, and asked Bradford to provide an example of a time when he had been “warm and fuzzy.” Bradford said he thought people who watched oral arguments at the Court of Appeals would see that side.

“People who know me know I'm one of the most approachable judges,” he said. “It may feel intimidating, but it's never meant like that.”

On diversity, Bradford said his background was an example of diversity that should be considered. While acknowledging the importance of gender diversity, he said the quality of opinions was more important than what people looked like. “God made me who I am; I do not question his plan,” he said.

Bradford called the Indiana Supreme Court the gold standard for the nation and said he'd be humbled to apply his energy to the bench.

Indiana University Health general counsel Erin Reilly Lewis said personality was one of the most important qualities in a Supreme Court justice. “When you have a team of five sitting around this very table, it does take personality,” she said. “Someone with intelligence who's able to be a consensus builder.”

At 38, Lewis is the youngest of the 10 semifinalists, and Dickson asked whether she saw her age as a liability or an asset. “I think those concerned about my youth can be quite assured I will soon grow out of it,” she said. “I think the fact that I have done a varied amount of practice in my 13 years helps,” she said. She also noted that former Chief Justice Randall Shepard was about her age when he was appointed to the bench, and her selection would allow her to dedicate many years to public service.

Commission members also asked about Lewis' lack of trial experience and how she would get around that. She said she would rely on the experience of fellow justices. “I think I look at the issues carefully and look at the parameters of what you are reviewing as an appellate court judge.” She said she has the skills of a trial lawyer and can think quickly on her feet. “I don't think I'm hindered by the fact that I haven't had a jury trial,” she said.

Lewis worked in private civil practice with the court's most recent appointee, Justice Mark Massa. Asked about someone who she looked up to, she mentioned Susan Brooks, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana. Lewis worked in that office for five years.

Lewis said justices should not legislate from the bench. When asked about a state Supreme Court ruling with which she disagreed, she cited the case involving  Brenda Moore, an intoxicated passenger in a car who had asked someone else to drive her home and was found guilty of public intoxication. She said Justice Robert Rucker wrote a dissent in that case that spoke to her about the possible implications were for people who had made the right decision but still faced punishment.

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