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Chinn: Why The Indiana Supreme Court Matters

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iba-chinn-scottThe profession and the citizenry have been blessed with a great Supreme Court in Indiana over the past several decades. There are several reasons for that, and several reasons why it matters.

Our Supreme Court Justices are smart and hard-working. All outward appearances demonstrate that our Justices take time to consider their opinions and the effects of their words. Agree or disagree with an outcome, it is a rare case that finds lawyers kvetching about Indiana Supreme Court opinions being poorly written or reasoned. As practitioners we gain stability in that.

Being appointed to the Court is a political process, although less so in Indiana than in other places. Even so, there is no way to “count noses” on the Indiana Supreme Court in a case with political implications as has become the inevitable practice in analyzing cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, for example. Our citizenry benefits from that sense that our Court is not highly politicized.

And think about how dignified our Court is. One supreme court in a sister state is making headlines about infighting – both verbally and physically. Ours couldn’t be more different, and we benefit from the esteem the citizenry can hold for our Court. And we lawyers don’t waste gossiping about the drama and worrying about its effects.

The Court’s penchant toward civility extends beyond the confines of the Justices’ conference table to oral advocates as well. Although most lawyers don’t argue cases or watch them being argued before the Indiana Supreme Court, as one who has and does, I can tell you first hand that the Justices treat advocates respectfully and engage in probing but constructive dialogue with advocates as part of an exercise in high-level legal problem solving. Unlike the practices in some other courts outside our borders, there are no mean-spirited, demeaning or ostentatiously rhetorical questions in our Court.

Finally, the Court and its Justices are connected to lawyers and the profession in many significant ways. As just one example, many of the Justices have been active participants in IndyBar meetings of members, committees, events (like Bench-Bar), and other activities. And former Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard’s initiation of the Indiana Conference for Legal Education Opportunity (ICLEO) has helped hundreds of students with diverse backgrounds prepare for law school and life. Similarly, Justice Frank Sullivan’s work to improve the opportunities for minorities in the judicial system has drawn award-winning recognition from the American Bar Association.

I mention former Chief Justice Shepard and Justice Sullivan, because with the former having already left and the recent announcement that the latter is leaving the Court, this is literally a time of change. What I trust and feel confident won’t change is the Court’s orientation toward the citizenry and the bar. We congratulate and wish well IndyBar member and newly appointed Justice Mark Massa, who comes to the Court from the perspective of a practicing lawyer—a quality not resident in an appointment to the Court in some time.

Finally, even as I extol the virtues of the Indiana Supreme Court, let me add one deficiency, which the Court itself cannot remedy. It is the obvious point that there remains no female Justice on the Court. In my view, and in light of the positive qualities I reviewed earlier, the only serious blemish the Court displays is this lack of gender diversity. I realize that raising that matter necessarily provokes a little controversy—probably more about the process than about my assertion that gender diversity on the Court is desirable. But as a thought exercise, and realizing that this is in no way the only issue that the Court could benefit from a female justice’s perspective, imagine that some issue connected to the highly charged national debate about funding for contraception came before the Indiana Supreme Court. Now imagine that, reminiscent of the Congressional committee episode on the same subject several weeks ago, there is no female voice on the Court to ask questions of the advocates and speak to the issues in the Justices’ conference on the case. While that might not in itself undo the Court’s reputation and good works, it would be seem genuinely awkward to enough people that it would undermine at least a little of the positive feeling that most of us otherwise have about the Court. That’s because to so many of us, the Court matters.•

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