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Indiana Judges Association: Judges are good government partners

David J. Dreyer
January 30, 2013
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IJA-Dreyer-DavidDear Gov. Pence:

Congratulations on your election as Governor of Indiana and for a job well done. All Indiana judges look forward to serving with you and your administration in the coming years. As a lawyer, you appreciate the role of courts and judges. However, many of our citizens simply do not know what courts do and what a judge’s job really is.

Thomas Jefferson once said:

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Some observers wonder if there is a deficit of “legal literacy” among our communities. A few years back, the National School Board Association publicly urged its members to learn more about the legal system and how schools operate within it. These days, there is even The Legal Literacy Project which seeks to educate non-lawyers about the laws that affect their lives. Overall, legal literacy can be defined as an elementary knowledge of laws and basic information about how the legal system works. Detailed expertise is not necessary, but a citizen needs legal literacy to properly evaluate one’s legal needs, fairly discern the issues of the day, or decide how to vote. All too often, the shtick of Judge Judy is the indelible image in people’s minds about courts.

And it is often surprising to us how often the general public and media presume that judges are just like other public officials. But as you know, Governor, we do not have political advisers, public opinion polls, press conferences or even photo ops. All we have is public confidence (hopefully), our partners in other branches of government and, of course, the law.

Overall, we are encouraged that you will always be supportive of judges’ limited role in government and appreciative of judges as good government partners. This may occasionally be problematic, especially when we disagree, and because we can never meet and discuss policy like the legislative branch. No, we are constitutional teammates, but we can’t audible plays, like Peyton Manning. Instead, we govern together in the time-honored adversary process – judges only get involved when people bring their problems to us. Believe me, there are plenty of them, every day, all year round. A trial court judge probably meets more citizens and solves more everyday problems than any other elected official. And he or she does it alone.

So in good faith and the spirit of optimism that should accompany the beginning of every governor’s term, we express our gratitude for your work to come and your understanding of the work of the courts. If you want, you can forward the notes below to anyone you think would benefit from becoming more legally literate.

1. Law is about people: As this column has shown before, every case involves people, no matter what. As someone else once said, that even includes corporations. The effects of a judge’s ruling affects people as individuals, employees, shareholders, doctors, patients, neighbors and sometimes state officials. But law is not politics and not policy – we judges do not announce personal positions or seek to get anything accomplished other than the law’s answer to the case before us.

2. Judges are people, too: There is nothing harder for people to understand than the fact that judges do not rule on the basis of preference. Sure, we like some lawyers better than others and feel more sympathetic to one party in a case sometimes. We even wish some laws were different on occasion. But those personal considerations mean nothing when we do our jobs. Really.

3. The judiciary is the “least dangerous branch”: As you know, Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers to alleviate some concerns about the power of federal judges with lifetime appointments. He said that the courts have “no influence over either the sword or the purse . . . It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment.” Overall, that is still true – we judges rely on the other branches to make sure the laws are followed, rulings are enforced and the public continues to have confidence in all of us. Without that, we lose the rule of law.

We know you appreciate the chance to hear from judges about how to remain good government partners. We hope to be in touch through the appropriate channels – bar association events, public forums, law school presentations and columns like this. We look forward to hearing from you as well. Good luck, as we both carry on the people’s business.•

__________

Judge David J. Dreyer has been a judge for the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School. He is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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  1. It really doesn't matter what the law IS, if law enforcement refuses to take reports (or take them seriously), if courts refuse to allow unrepresented parties to speak (especially in Small Claims, which is supposedly "informal"). It doesn't matter what the law IS, if constituents are unable to make effective contact or receive any meaningful response from their representatives. Two of our pets were unnecessarily killed; court records reflect that I "abandoned" them. Not so; when I was denied one of them (and my possessions, which by court order I was supposed to be able to remove), I went directly to the court. And earlier, when I tried to have the DV PO extended (it expired while the subject was on probation for violating it), the court denied any extension. The result? Same problems, less than eight hours after expiration. Ironic that the county sheriff was charged (and later pleaded to) with intimidation, but none of his officers seemed interested or capable of taking such a report from a private citizen. When I learned from one officer what I needed to do, I forwarded audio and transcript of one occurrence and my call to law enforcement (before the statute of limitations expired) to the prosecutor's office. I didn't even receive an acknowledgement. Earlier, I'd gone in to the prosecutor's office and been told that the officer's (written) report didn't match what I said occurred. Since I had the audio, I can only say that I have very little faith in Indiana government or law enforcement.

  2. One can only wonder whether Mr. Kimmel was paid for his work by Mr. Burgh ... or whether that bill fell to the citizens of Indiana, many of whom cannot afford attorneys for important matters. It really doesn't take a judge(s) to know that "pavement" can be considered a deadly weapon. It only takes a brain and some education or thought. I'm glad to see the conviction was upheld although sorry to see that the asphalt could even be considered "an issue".

  3. In response to bryanjbrown: thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Paul Ogden (and applaud his assistance to Shirley Justice) and have read of Gary Welsh's (strange) death (and have visited his blog on many occasions). I am not familiar with you (yet). I lived in Kosciusko county, where the sheriff was just removed after pleading in what seems a very "sweetheart" deal. Unfortunately, something NEEDS to change since the attorneys won't (en masse) stand up for ethics (rather making a show to please the "rules" and apparently the judges). I read that many attorneys are underemployed. Seems wisdom would be to cull the herd and get rid of the rotting apples in practice and on the bench, for everyone's sake as well as justice. I'd like to file an attorney complaint, but I have little faith in anything (other than the most flagrant and obvious) resulting in action. My own belief is that if this was medicine, there'd be maimed and injured all over and the carnage caused by "the profession" would be difficult to hide. One can dream ... meanwhile, back to figuring out to file a pro se "motion to dismiss" as well as another court required paper that Indiana is so fond of providing NO resources for (unlike many other states, who don't automatically assume that citizens involved in the court process are scumbags) so that maybe I can get the family law attorney - whose work left me with no settlement, no possessions and resulted in the death of two pets (etc ad nauseum) - to stop abusing the proceedings supplemental and small claims rules and using it as a vehicle for harassment and apparently, amusement.

  4. Been on social security sense sept 2011 2massive strokes open heart surgery and serious ovarian cancer and a blood clot in my lung all in 14 months. Got a letter in may saying that i didn't qualify and it was in form like i just applied ,called social security she said it don't make sense and you are still geting a check in june and i did ,now i get a check from my part D asking for payment for july because there will be no money for my membership, call my prescription coverage part D and confirmed no check will be there.went to social security they didn't want to answer whats going on just said i should of never been on it .no one knows where this letter came from was California im in virginia and been here sense my strokes and vcu filed for my disability i was in the hospital when they did it .It's like it was a error . My ,mothers social security was being handled in that office in California my sister was dealing with it and it had my social security number because she died last year and this letter came out of the same office and it came at the same time i got the letter for my mother benefits for death and they had the same date of being typed just one was on the mail Saturday and one on Monday. . I think it's a mistake and it should been fixed instead there just getting rid of me .i never got a formal letter saying when i was being tsken off.

  5. Employers should not have racially discriminating mind set. It has huge impact on the society what the big players do or don't do in the industry. Background check is conducted just to verify whether information provided by the prospective employee is correct or not. It doesn't have any direct combination with the rejection of the employees. If there is rejection, there should be something effective and full-proof things on the table that may keep the company or the people associated with it in jeopardy.

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