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Chief’s recusal results in split Supreme Court

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The same day it heard arguments about the dissolution of a Brown County fire district, the Indiana Supreme Court reinstated the intermediate court’s ruling on the case because of a 2-2 division caused by the recusal of Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.

On Tuesday, the high court heard arguments in Ronald Sanders, et al. v. Board of Commissioners of Brown County, et. al, No. 07S04-1010-CV-600, which hit on local government reform with a challenge to a countywide fire protection district created by county officials back in 2007.

The Brown County Commissioners in September 2007 enacted an ordinance establishing a fire district, but in January 2009 a new commission with two new members voted to dissolve it. Some residents pursued injunctive relief on grounds the dissolution ordinance was void because no dissolution petition or ordinance repeal had been filed.

The trial court granted summary judgment for the county officials, but the Court of Appeals in February 2010 reversed that ruling. The Supreme Court granted transfer and heard arguments this week, focusing on the state dissolution statute and how it applies here.

But Chief Justice Shepard wasn’t a part of the case. He’d recused himself after one of the attorneys had requested it on the first incarnation of the case – when some residents challenged the creation of the fire district – and it went before a different special trial judge and up through the appellate courts. The attorney asked the chief justice to step aside since he’d co-chaired a local government reform commission advocating for those types of changes, and the petition in late 2008 questioned the chief justice’s ability to be impartial in this case, having served as an advocate for what this case is about. At that time, the court voted not to grant transfer.

But now with this secondary case challenging the dissolution of the district, the chief justice’s recusal remained in effect and he didn’t participate.

Justice Brent Dickson served as the acting chief justice and he joined with Justice Frank Sullivan in believing the trial court decision was correct. But Justices Steven David and Robert Rucker disagreed and found the trial court decided incorrectly, resulting in a split.

“This rare circumstance is anticipated in our rules, which provide that in cases where the Supreme Court is evenly divided upon the proper disposition of the cause once transfer is granted, the decision of the Court of Appeals shall be reinstated,” an order says, citing Appellate Rule 58(c) and reinstating as precedent Gaudian v. Austin, 921 N.E. 2d 895 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010).

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