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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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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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