Indiana Tax Court interviews under way

October 27, 2010
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Indiana Lawyer reporter Michael W. Hoskins wrote this blog post.

Four women and three men came before the commission for second interviews, each lasting 25 minutes, with only one break between groups. With only seven people to interview, the commission plans to wrap up about 12:10 p.m. and then deliberate.

In the minutes before the commission began at 9 a.m., Justice Frank Sullivan and newly-installed Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David came into the room where they discuss cases in private conference each week. Justice Sullivan drew some laughs when he told a story about how last week, even though it was the first time in 11 years where the second-newest Justice Robert Rucker didn’t have to speak first, he did.

"That didn't stop him from voting first," Justice Sullivan said.

Justices Sullivan and David then offered thought about how important this Tax Court seat is, given that that jurist is the single-most powerful single judgeship in the state with jurisdiction directly under the Supreme Court.

Joby D. Jerrells: First and foremost, he said, a good strong docket is important. Then, he said he’d meet with tax practitioners to hear how they think that tax practice and procedure needs to change. He’d conduct an aging report to determine how old cases are and what could be done more efficiently. Then, he’d look to “enhance, hone, and improve” the jurisprudence that Judge Thomas G. Fisher has created during the past quarter century.

Jerrells would be interested in examining an electronic docket for the Tax Court, and he sees that as being a good test bed to determine how similar efforts can be implemented statewide. Recognizing the significant number of pro se litigants, Jerrells said that he’d ensure those individuals understand the process and know their rights and what’s happening.

Responding to a question about the structure of how appeals come from the Department of Revenue, Jerrells told members that the issue is “brooding” and that the discretion given by the Tax Court to those state agency decisions might need to be examined, possibly by a rule or statute. He also said timeliness should be examined and efficiency should be improved if necessary, particularly since there’s no “lazy judge” rule as exists for state trial courts.

George T. Angelone: The biggest responsibility of the tax judge is providing clear and understandable decisions, using a well thought out system of statutory structure, he said. He’d be interested in being involved in computer issues, such as the JTAC initiatives, and meeting with legislatures. He also would be interested in being a Code and Revision Commission liaison.

Angelone said he would get out of the office and hold court statewide. Answering a question from Chief Justice Randall Shepard, he described the 2002 tax package that involved a sales tax increase as being successful and very influential for the state.

He also talked about how a tax judge must be respectful of the General Assembly, and appearing when requested is a good start if it doesn’t interfere with any pending cases. He’d want to do that, and also work with the bar on addressing substantive issues.

Hon. Karen M. Love: The court is uniquely situated at the intersection of the three branches of government, and the judge’s job is to recognize the court’s role, understand legal issues it’ll deal with, have an ability to lead by example, and to explain its decisions, she said. Indiana can be a leader in tax law as it is seen nationally on jury reform.

As the only state trial judge applying for this post, the Hendricks Superior judge said the tax judge’s responsibility is to provide “timely and affordable justice for all” and that her experience has prepared her for this role on the administrative and legal and judiciary sides. The court must set the pace, provide uniformity, and participate with the entire legal community to make sure everyone understands what’s happening.

During her nearly 16 years on the trial bench, she has observed firsthand the pro se litigant issues and strives to follow the rules and communicate with them about what’s expected. One commission member noted that he was impressed with her writing, and Judge Love noted that she’s learned from the lawyers and other jurists throughout the state. “I’m a product of the legal profession, the judiciary in Indiana. I want you to see what trial judges are like, and I want to make them proud.”

Melony A. Sacopulos: Sacopulos talked about how the Tax Court is a specialty court with one judge that can impact the rest of the judiciary. The judge must follow the judiciary’s vision and strategic plan, be concise in its writing so that rationale and precedent is understood, and make sure that professionalism and fiscal responsible are demonstrated.

She discussed her hard work ethic and professional background and civic involvement, and her experience as treasurer at Indiana State University. Sacopulos said the correct place for a court to opine is in its opinions, and the judge must be careful about passing comments on matters outside of cases – even in interactions with the legislature.

The standard of review is the same as far as how appeals get to the court from state agencies, and she said she wouldn’t presume to offer thoughts on that without being familiar with what might be happening in that process or a specific case. Some streamlining might be needed in property tax assessments, she said. As far as pro se litigants, Sacopulos said the court must be kind, courteous, and respectful and make sure individuals understand the court’s rationale.

A summary of the next round of interviews including Martha Wentworth, Dan Carwile, and Carol Comer will be posted to IL’s website later today. Deliberations are scheduled to start at 12:20 p.m.

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