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Dickson named chief justice as court faces ‘upheaval’

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Brent E. Dickson was selected Indiana chief justice Tuesday after his Supreme Court colleagues unanimously said he embodied the leadership qualities needed during a period of transition.

Dickson had been named acting chief after longtime chief justice Randall T. Shepard retired in March. Shepard was replaced by Mark Massa.

Since then, Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. announced he, too, was resigning, and Dickson said Tuesday that the court’s other long-serving jurist, Robert Rucker, had not decided whether to run for retention in November. Rucker’s office had no immediate comment, but Supreme Court public information officer Kathryn Dolan said Rucker has until mid-July to decide.

After his unanimous selection by the Judicial Nominating Commission, Dickson said he had not considered himself a candidate until he heard from judges and legal professionals around the state who were seeking stability on the court.

“There were a growing number of voices that persuaded me,” Dickson said. “Our employees needed to know civility was going to reign.”

He credited Shepard for nurturing a civil atmosphere on the court and said he wished to continue that tone and court programs Shepard championed and developed during his 25 years as chief.

The commission invited each justice to share views of the qualities needed in a chief justice. Massa, Steven David and Rucker each said Dickson embodied those most needed in a transitional period for the court that some called unprecedented.

Dickson will face mandatory retirement when he turns 75 in July 2016, before his five-year term as chief expires. He said he has made no decision whether he will retire before he reaches mandatory retirement age.

“It’s very well-deserved and not something that I would think of as a gold watch or a  lifetime achievement award,” Massa said in recommending Dickson, who he called a consensus builder and thought leader. “Justice Dickson would be a marvelous choice.”

Massa and others said Dickson also possessed the “small ‘P’ political skills” needed to be the public face of the court and represent the judiciary in the legislature.

“As far as the immediate decision, what I would look for if I were you,” David told the commission, then leaned and stared across the table at Dickson, who chairs the panel. He called Dickson “the right fit.”

Rucker said the chief justice also acts as a chairman of the board of the state’s judiciary. He said the courts face budgetary challenges, assaults on judicial independence and questions of access to justice for those most in need.

Rucker said “with upheaval in our ranks … maybe more upheaval to come,” that Dickson “has been that steady hand, that visionary, if you will, who has done a magnificent job.”

Dickson said that continuity is important amid change. “I’d like to keep things moving as they have been,” he said.  

Dickson’s appointment is effective immediately.

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