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High court opening process wasn't public 25 years ago

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The nearly three-dozen attorneys who’ve applied to become the state’s newest justice sets a record for the past 25 years, but it falls short of the number who’d applied for an Indiana Supreme Court post a quarter century ago.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard was part of an applicant pool for the state’s highest court in 1985 to succeed former Justice Donald Hunter who’d hit the mandatory retirement age. At the time, Indiana’s statutory scheme hadn’t yet changed to make the applicant roster and interview process public – everything was confidential until the late '80s and early '90s.

Court public information officer Kathryn Dolan said 36 applied a quarter century ago, which is two more applicants than the 34 who’ve applied for the post being vacated in September once Justice Theodore R. Boehm retires from the court. The chief justice affirmed that number based on what he knew at the time, but added the process was very different then.

“The list was never public, so you never really knew all who’d applied,” the chief justice said today. “But because of a massive amount of reporter time, the Star uncovered the names of about two-thirds of the applicants by calling up and asking them. I certainly knew several of them, but it was all closed.”

Instead of the current process put into place in 1991 when a new fifth district was added to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the Judicial Nominating Commission at the time held all of the interviews during three days and announced the finalists at the end – rather than narrowing the list down to semi-finalists and bringing those individuals back for second interviews before choosing finalists to send to the governor for consideration.

Thinking back on his interview, Chief Justice Shepard said he didn’t recall specifically how long his interview lasted but he knew that he was in the room longer than his allotted time. He remembers then-Chief Justice Richard Givan asking him questions about how he managed his trial court work and something about philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke, but he doesn’t recall how he answered.

“I know I spent a fair amount of time getting ready, because the application then was as it is now – a fairly substantial process in itself,” Chief Justice Shepard said. “I remember spending a lot of time thinking about what I might be asked and what I might say.”

After what he now describes as a likely grueling process for the commission members at the time, the chief justice emerged as one of three finalists for the opening – attorneys Patrick Woods Harrison in Columbus and Raymond Thomas Green, now in Fort Wayne, were the other two finalists.

Green couldn’t be reached at his office today, but Harrison said he had no regrets about how the process turned out. After the nominating commission interview, he met twice with then-Gov. Robert Orr and answered questions about experience and general philosophies on issues such as utilities. Within a few weeks, the announcement came about the final choice.

“Honestly, I wrote the governor after Justice Shepard was appointed and said, ‘I hate to admit this, but you made the right choice,’” Harrison said. “I can say so many great things about Randy and just can’t think of anything bad, and that’s unusual for someone who’s been on the court for so long.”

Chief Justice Shepard says that he was the oldest of the three on that list, and he later learned that the commission members considering applicants had expressed “a fair amount of sentiment” to find someone young for the court.

Now serving as chief justice and chair of the Judicial Nominating Commission, he finds himself on the flip side of that interview process. Interviews begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday and run through the entire day, and start again at the same time Wednesday. The commission will select semi-finalists following those interviews, and will bring those individuals back for a second round of questions on July 30. Members are expected to decide that day on three finalists, whose names will be sent to Gov. Mitch Daniels for final consideration.

“I still believe this two-stage process has been a valuable change,” Chief Justice Shepard said. “For one, it gives commission members a second look at candidates before making a final choice. It also gives us a chance to call references and the seven of us have been able to divide up the task of calling those references. It’s just a better decision-making process.”

The chief justice laughs about the possibility of a different result, had the process been any different or been spread out in stages as it is now.

“I have no basis to know, but there was a list of substantially qualified people who applied,” he said. “I am lucky to have made it.”
 

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