End of a family legacy

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As the Hoosier judiciary has evolved through the decades, the Indiana Judges Association has been a vocal advocate in helping to shape and welcome those changes.

The organization has been around since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, evolving from what some describe as more of a social club to an educational and legislative lobbying arm of Indiana’s judiciary.

But for the first time since the mid 1950s, the Indiana Judges Association won’t have anyone in the Baker family sitting on the board of managers and being as intimately involved in the group’s activities as they have been for two-thirds of the group’s existence.

Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John G. Baker on Jan. 1 relinquished the IJA directorship that’s been in his family for more than five decades. It began with his uncle, Dearborn-Ohio Circuit Judge Lester Baker, and Judge John Baker became involved in the 1970s.

coa Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John G. Baker holds a picture from an Indiana Judges Association meeting in 1984, where his uncle – Dearborn-Ohio Circuit Judge Lester Baker, pictured second from the right – was recognized as a past president. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Their involvement and leadership has coincided with some of the most significant reforms in how Indiana courts operate, and that has shaped the organization that is now facing another pivotal period as it pushes for new judiciary reforms that would transform Indiana’s court system again.

“Truly, it’s astounding and I’d be surprised if any two judges in the same family have this type of track record anywhere in the U.S.,” said Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard. “But more important than longevity has been the remarkable role that they have played in building the judges association and urging Indiana judges generally to meet a higher standard.”

The Baker judges

A native of Aurora in southern Indiana, Judge Baker is the son of the county doctor. His uncle, Judge Lester Baker, was his dad’s brother and called “Uncle Bake” by family. Though he may not have realized it at the time, Judge Baker says his uncle played a part in his becoming a lawyer and ultimately joining the bench.

Earning his LLB from what is now the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, Lester Baker was elected to the unified Dearborn and Ohio Circuit court in 1948 after returning from World War II and becoming the Dearborn County prosecutor. He moved up through the ranks of the Indiana Judges Association board in the mid-1950s and eventually to the post of president in 1970-1971. This was a pivotal year in the state judiciary that included a constitutional restructuring of the courts which created the current appellate court system.

When the younger Baker was working as an attorney in Bloomington in the mid-1970s, a local judge asked if he wanted to fill an opening on the bench. Judge Baker recalls thinking that it would be a temporary job for a year, and he learned the position would be with a new “county court” being created to replace the local town and city courts. The condition: he’d have to switch political parties.

Judge Baker says he struggled with the decision, and he called his uncle for advice about what to do.

“Son, you have to make a choice,” Judge Baker recalls his uncle telling him. “You can go for the good pay or a good career in public service - but don’t be confused, you can’t have both. And once you become a judge, you won’t go back.”

Then a single man, Judge Baker made the choice and later moved up to Superior and Circuit seats before eventually being named in the late 1980s to the state’s intermediate appellate court, where he served as chief judge from February 2007 through the end of 2010.

Judge Baker represented one of the local court districts on IJA’s board of managers and later, once he joined the appellate court, he held one of the at-large spots on the board. At the time, he explained, the Court of Appeals judges didn’t have their own seat on the association so he was the first and only person to occupy that chair.

Now, the chief judge has his or own seat on the board, he said, and that’s been a position he has held for the past three years until handing the leadership over to Chief Judge Margret Robb on Jan. 1.

“I was a law student at the time (in 1970) when Uncle Bake served as president, and (he) was alive while I was going through the chairs but not alive when I was the president,” he said of his January 1987 to June 1989 presidency that began two years after his uncle’s death. “But his widow did see me, and that was very meaningful to our family.”

An evolving association

Most of the history of the Indiana Judges Association isn’t written or published anywhere, but held in the minds of those who’ve served in leadership positions and carried on the story through the years. Those who’ve been around the Indiana judiciary the longest or involved with the Judicial Center and Division of State Court Administration say that Judge Baker is the most authoritative source on the IJA’s founding and evolution.

“I’ve become the historian,” Judge Baker says. “I’m not sure if I’d ever sat and visited with the original founders, but I’m sure that I have sat with those who sat and visited with those founders.”

Judge Baker says the association evolved from the gathering of some local judges at an Indiana State Bar Association meeting in 1934. Funded by the more than 400 members’ dues, the voluntary association has kept the original mission through the years to “cultivate the acquaintance of Indiana judges; to assist each other in mutual problems; to work with representatives of the state agencies for the improvement of Indiana government; to provide a source of judicial membership for committees outside the Association and to exert a coordinated effort toward better and simpler administration of justice and clearer, more uniform procedures in all courts.”

Judges in those early years and even through the 1970s say that it was more of a social club, and the lobbying and legislative issues weren’t as large a part of the association as they are now. Judge Thomas Milligan, who recently retired from Montgomery Circuit Court after 36 years on the bench, said that he started getting involved because it was a social opportunity to meet and learn from other judges statewide.

“The primary focus now is on legislation and the Legislature, and secondarily it’s about socialization,” said the judge who served in leadership positions in the 1990s and was president in 2001. “I know John has been involved all along and pretty consistently and has the institutional memory. I hope there’s someone there who will have enough interest and knowledge to carry the institutional memory forward and be guided by what’s happened in the past.”

Though the organization itself has evolved through the years into more of a legislative lobbying arm of the judiciary, Judge Baker said many of the issues have remained the same: reform has been a key issue through the decades often focusing on the same concerns. The largest period of growth for the Indiana judiciary came in 1976 with the creation of county courts, leading to 58 new judgeships and a debate about whether those new judicial officers should be able to join the association.

A special IJA committee in the 1970s chaired by then-state court Judges Sue Shields in Hamilton County and Michael Kanne in Jasper Circuit recommended sweeping reforms to the state judiciary, and those ideas were revisited in the 1980s and are still under debate now with the courts’ New Way Forward report, according to Judge Baker.

“I find it interesting that everyone who looks at Indiana’s court system comes up with the same recommendations on reform,” he said. “We’ve been able to piecemeal some in and will be asking the General Assembly for more breadth to do more, but there has never seemed to be a reception that wants to do it all at once. The discussions are always about the same, with little nuances here and there. But the judges association has kept the discussion going.”

Chief Justice Shepard credits his appellate colleague with being a driving force not only in keeping those issues on the forefront, but also in changing how IJA operates and advocates for the state’s judges. Judge Baker served as president at a time the association was restructuring its leadership succession, and as a result he served about six months longer than the typical two-year time period that others do. During that time, he came up with the idea of an annual officer’s retreat where a group gathers in the summer to map out what the new year will entail, according to the chief justice. Judge Baker also paved the way for the pension reform and compensation changes that the Legislature has made through the years, Chief Justice Shepard said.

“He’s created the modern template for this state’s judges association, and we’re in a completely different and vastly better place than we’ve ever been,” Chief Justice Shepard said.

The coming years are likely to be challenging ones for the state’s judiciary, with courts facing the prospect of operating with fewer resources, higher caseloads, and increased scrutiny from lawmakers trying to find more places to cut costs. The IJA is leading the lobbying effort for court reform statewide and has mapped out many proposals that some lawmakers have expressed interest in introducing during the 2011 legislative session.

While Judge Baker has relinquished his board of managers’ duties with the end of his chief judgeship, the new chief judge says he shouldn’t be so quick to see that as the end. Chief Judge Robb might have conflicting schedules and plans to ask Judge Baker to be the acting chief judge at least for the first meeting, she said. Meanwhile, Judge Baker says he doesn’t plan to stop being involved in the association that is so close to his family’s heart.

“It’s been fun, and I’ll miss it because I had the chance to work on some of those key court issues we’ve been trying to tackle for so long. But I won’t abandon those issues, and will remain active and interactive as much as possible.”•


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