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Disciplinary attorneys: Judge experience a bonus

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Having a trial court judge as the executive leader of the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission is a new approach for the state, but those intimately involved with attorney disciplinary matters say it could prove to be a positive change.

The Indiana Supreme Court announced Monday it had chosen former Dearborn Superior Judge G. Michael Witte as the Disciplinary Commission’s newest executive secretary to succeed longtime leader Don Lundberg. Lundberg left to join Barnes & Thornburg at the start of the year. The nine-member commission had been searching since late last year, narrowing the list from 24 to 10 before ultimately recommending Judge Witte for the post. He begins June 21.

This is only the third time in almost 40 years the Disciplinary Commission has searched for and chosen a new executive leader.

Judge Witte served on the Dearborn County bench from 1985 to the end of 2008. Since then he’s served as a temporary and senior judge statewide while also maintaining leadership roles at the state and national level. Though he doesn’t specifically have any attorney ethics experience, Judge Witte draws from his practical experience on the bench as well as his judicial ethics experience through the American Bar Association.

Indiana joins other states that have called upon former judges to take on the executive leadership roles for attorney discipline agencies, according to the National Organization of Bar Counsel.

Having a person with judicial experience serve as head of a state disciplinary agency can be a significant positive in terms of providing leadership with a balanced, experienced perspective, said the national group’s president-elect Bill Weigel, litigation counsel for the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Office of Lawyer Regulation.

“Public confidence in the fairness of the system is key, and judges are perceived as being able to act fairly and in the public interest in contentious matters,” he said. “Judges are usually perceived as not pursuing personal agendas, except to do the right thing. They have training and experience in separating the wheat from the chaff when identifying issues, making decisions based on the evidence and not emotions, and in making tough decisions in adversarial settings.”

Within Indiana, those who’ve led the state Disciplinary Commission and others actively involved in attorney ethics issues through the years admit they don’t personally know Judge Witte. But they agree that his judicial experience and reputation indicate he’ll bring what’s needed to the state agency’s leadership.

“In some ways, this can be a daunting challenge because you’re clearly acting in a position of authority in respect to the bar,” Lundberg said. “I think judicial experience is a good aspect of someone’s background for this job because judges, too, stand in a relationship with the practicing bar that means distancing yourself. Inevitably, there’s some distance in professional roles between the bench and bar, and to some extent that’s true with the lawyer discipline bar. You move in the same circles as a practicing attorney, but at the end of the day you also stand in a position of considerable authority and power.”

Once he leaves the bench and takes the executive secretary post, Lundberg encourages Judge Witte to draw upon the experienced and knowledgeable staff at the state agency. That’s great backup to have, as someone who’s coming in from the outside, Lundberg said.

Westfield attorney John Conlon, who is past chair of the Indiana State Bar Association’s Ethics Committee and has been a leader in that area for years, agrees it’s an excellent idea having a former trial judge in that executive secretary role.

Through the years, he’s witnessed the commission grow in staff and caseload, and the staff attorneys are essentially chief prosecutors on the attorney discipline matters. At this point, he would like to see the executive secretary evolve into more of a full-time administrator and leave the prosecutions to his experienced staff attorneys, Conlon said.

“Although I do not know Judge Witte personally, I understand he was an effective judicial administrator,” Conlon said. “Thus, he should be able to take on a more expanded administrative role very effectively.”

Longtime Disciplinary Commission attorney Seth Pruden, who’s been serving as interim leader since Lundberg left, praised the pick and said Judge Witte’s experience will be a benefit for the agency.

“He brings a perspective of the legal profession that makes him an objective observer,” Pruden said. “He’s not coming at it as a defense lawyer or prosecutor, or civil trial lawyer, but as a neutral observer. That is an excellent qualifier, and I think it makes him very responsive to the needs of our legal system and the court that makes the final disciplinary decisions.”

A full story on Judge Witte being named the new executive secretary can be viewed online at the Indiana Lawyer website Wednesday.
 

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