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Rucker retires after 26 years on appellate bench

May 17, 2017
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Now-retired Justice Robert Rucker says he was humbled and touched by friends’ and colleagues’ tributes to his career. (Photo courtesy of the Indiana Supreme Court)

Ask a member of the Indiana judiciary to describe former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker, and you’ll get answers such as “empathetic” or “compassionate.” And those who sat on either side of Rucker during his nearly 18 years on the state’s highest bench say the now-retired justice never let his sense of humanity outweigh the rule of law.

In fact, fellow former Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. said one of the qualities he most admired in Rucker was his ability to follow where the law took him, regardless of his personal feelings toward a case. But now, after a quarter-century career of striving to place justice above ideology, the longtime jurist has left the stat Supreme Court.

Rucker retired from the court May 12, after serving as one of the five final arbiters in Indiana’s legal system since 1999. His appellate career, which began with a seat on the Indiana Court of Appeals in 1991, included work with 23 Court of Appeals judges and eight justices, as well as authorship of roughly 1,250 majority opinions.

In a ceremony earlier this month to commemorate Rucker’s career, legal professionals who have worked with and for Rucker said those opinions provide insight into a legal mind that is wise, eloquent and insightful. Both Sullivan and Traci Cosby, Rucker’s most recent law clerk who paid tribute to his career during the retirement ceremony, mentioned Rucker’s majority opinion in Alexander J. Anglemyer v. State of Indiana as one of his most significant contributions to Indiana jurisprudence.

Additionally, Sullivan also pointed to three other Rucker majority opinions — Ronnie Holden v. State of Indiana, Clinic for Women, Inc. v. Carl J. Brizzi, and Sophia Willis v. State of Indiana — that dealt with issues of jury nullification, abortion, and parental discipline, respectively, as evidence of Rucker’s ability to focus only on the law, even when dealing with highly partisan issues.

“He’s the ideal appellate judge,” Sullivan said.

Aside from his work specific to the Supreme Court, Rucker’s retirement ceremony also honored his contributions to the entire legal system. Chief among those contributions were Rucker’s work toward promoting diversity throughout the judiciary, with Anne-Marie Clarke, chair-elect of the National Bar Association Judicial Council, calling the retired justice a role model for black males on par with other prominent black men such as former President Barack Obama.

Rucker’s retirement will leave the Supreme Court without racial diversity, as the three finalists for his spot on the bench are white. But even though racial minorities will no longer be physically represented on the court, Cosby credited Rucker with helping to develop initiatives, such as the Indiana Conference for Legal Education Opportunity, that will ensure women and people of color will have a place in the judiciary for years to come.

Rucker’s departure from the bench also leaves the court without his institutional knowledge, which he acquired on both the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. Now, Justice Steven David assumes the position of the most-senior justice with seven years of experience.

Gov. Eric Holcomb presented Rucker the Sagamore of the Wabash, one of the state’s highest honors, at the ceremony. Holcomb assured Rucker the state would continue to call upon him for his wisdom and counsel in the years to come. But Sullivan, who noted this is now the first time in roughly 65 years the court’s most-senior justice has had seven years of experience or less, said the bench without Rucker is comprised of a talented group of justices with significant trial court experience that will enable them to successfully carry on the work of the court.

Though Rucker, 70, has already retired, celebrations in his honor continue. The Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, for example, is hosting “A Salute to Justice Robert D. Rucker’s Contributions to Indiana Law” on May 24. The program will include panel discussions featuring several of Rucker’s former law clerks, and will also include a “conference” meeting of Rucker, Sullivan, former Chief Justices Randall Shepard and Brent Dickson and former Justice Theodore Boehm.

Led by Shepard as their chief, those five justices served together for 11 years, from the time Rucker joined the bench in 1999 to the time David replaced Boehm in 2010. During those 11 years, Rucker, as the most-junior justice, was always required to speak first during the court’s conference meetings to decide cases. In keeping with that tradition, Sullivan said the reunion of the five justices at IU McKinney — the first time all five men will have been together since Boehm’s retirement — will once again require Rucker to open the conversation by speaking about his time on the bench first.

As he reminisced about his years of service to the Indiana judiciary at his retirement ceremony, Rucker said he was awed so many of his friends and colleagues had gathered to honor his career.

“On more than one occasion, I’ve had to glance to my left and right and think, ‘Are they talking about me?’” Rucker told the crowd that filled the Indiana Supreme Court courtroom.

As his brother, Gregory Rucker, surprised the crowd by singing excerpts of Rev. Don Johnson’s “I Can’t Complain,” Justice Rucker interjected his personal thoughts along with the lyrics. When Gregory Rucker sang, “I’ve had good days,” the justice noted, “A 5-0 opinion is a good day.” But when his brother began to sing about having hills to climb, Rucker wryly mused, “I wonder if I can get Justice David’s vote on this?”

Then, bringing his appellate career full circle, Chief Justice Loretta Rush had one final surprise for Rucker — an a capella performance of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” by students from Herron High School in Indianapolis. That was the song former Valparaiso University Law School Dean Edward Gaffney sang at Rucker’s robing ceremony, and as the justice listened to the performance in his honor, he shook his head in awe as he enjoyed his final moments on the Supreme Court bench.

“What better way to close the event than the choir leading us in singing ‘My Country ’Tis of Thee,’” Rucker said in a statement after the ceremony. “Their harmonizing voices were incredible. I will long cherish the memory of this ceremony and look forward to an active retirement.”•

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