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Indiana justice gender issue resurfaces

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Seventy-two percent of applicants for the current vacancy on the Indiana Supreme Court were women. After a first round of interviews, 60 percent of semifinalists were women. The number fell to 33 percent – just one woman – by the time Gov. Mitch Daniels got the final three names.

Nation Nation

The numbers are disappointing to court watchers who thought odds were stronger this time around that two or potentially three women might be among the finalists from whom Daniels will appoint the next justice.

Indiana is one of just three states, including Idaho and Iowa, that have no women on their supreme courts. Only one woman, Myra Selby, has ever served on Indiana’s Supreme Court. She left the bench in 1999 after four years.

Charles Geyh, a professor and judicial appointment expert at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said the issue represents at the very least a perception problem for the judiciary and the selection process, though he said the finalists selected each were imminently qualified. He said gender “absolutely” should be a consideration for the high court vacancy.

loretta rush Rush

“This isn’t about affirmative action, and I recognize the Supreme Court of Indiana is not like a legislature. Nonetheless, it does serve the people of Indiana, and by the way, half of them are women,” Geyh said.

“It’s hard to defend unless you can look at the Indiana bar and say women are so deficient that they don’t deserve a spot on the Supreme Court, and I don’t think anyone is that out of their mind,” he said. “To me, when you’re talking about a Supreme Court that’s serving the entirety of the state, you ought to be mindful, I think, of the perceptions you create.”

Diversity was a topic most semifinalists before the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission were asked to discuss during their interviews on Aug. 8. Many of them said gender and racial diversity were important, but they said diversity of background, professional and life experience also were important.

geoff slaughter Slaughter

If Daniels does select a woman this time, it will be Tippecanoe Superior Judge Loretta Rush. Other finalists the commission selected are Hamilton Superior Judge Steven Nation and Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP partner Geoffrey Slaughter.

“I think each one of them is well qualified and brings different strengths to the table,” said Joel Schumm, professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law who watched and commented on the commission’s interviews.

Schumm said Rush’s semifinalist interview with the commission stood out to him as the day’s best.

“She was confident but not arrogant,” he said. But Schumm said Slaughter is among the best appellate attorneys in the state, and Nation probably has the broadest base of experience of the finalists.

Schumm said he heard from a number of women who were upset that only one woman had advanced for the governor’s consideration. Schumm said he understood the sentiment, but he also understood the commission’s choices.

“It was an open and fair process, and what I hope doesn’t happen is fewer people or fewer women in general apply in the future,” he said. “That said, each one of the three finalists is well qualified and it’s hard to say how the governor makes a decision of who’s best qualified. … There’s not a consistent yardstick for that.”

finalistsThe commission’s decision was marked by a rare departure from its customary unanimous public votes in favor of a slate of three finalists. Commission member Jim McDonald, a Terre Haute private practice attorney, voted against the three finalists but declined to explain what prompted him to do so.

McDonald acknowledged the unusual circumstance, saying only, “I felt strongly enough then that I was going to vote my conscience.”

Daniels will have 60 days from the official receipt of a letter notifying him of the commission’s decision to appoint a justice to replace Frank Sullivan Jr., who retired from the court to join the faculty at I.U. McKinney School of Law. It’s unclear what role gender may play in Daniels’ decision, or whether he may move faster since Sullivan has departed.

“The governor will approach this vacancy the way he has the others,” Daniels’ deputy press secretary Jake Oakman said in a statement. “He will select the best qualified person and make the selection when he’s ready.”

Geyh said the fact that just one woman was among the finalists “kind of forces the governor’s hand a little bit. If he was going to choose a woman, he has only one choice.”

Melissa Cohen of Cohen & Sawochka P.C. in Merrillville is president of the Indiana Women Lawyers Association, a nonpartisan organization that represents about 100 attorneys, mostly in northwest Indiana. She said it’s a concern to the group that Indiana is just one of three states without female representation on the state’s court of last resort.

Cohen said all the finalists are qualified candidates, but “we thought there were enough qualified women candidates that more than one could be considered for the final three.”

“The Women Lawyers Association thinks that there are many qualified women in the state of Indiana who would be excellent Supreme Court justices,” Cohen said. “There were more women applicants than men. We’re grateful that there is at least one woman in the final three.”

Cohen said the IWLA’s mission is to support the advancement of women lawyers and judges. The group also conducts legal seminars and mentors women lawyers and law students.

“We do think that a woman Supreme Court justice will favorably change the dynamics of the Supreme Court and enrich the measure of justice,” she said.•
 

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  • pfft
    I have no problem with a woman judge at any level of the court system. nevertheless the sex-parity conversations smack of affirmative action and are totally inappropriate and undignified for the judiciary. I don't care that all the wonks and talking heads love to make these head-counting ethnic and "gender" analyses, they are all inappropriate for the small number of slots out there in the judiciary. When you categorize human types you can fashion as many categories as imaginable. So does every imaginable category need a represenatative on the bench? That whole conversation is ridiculous and the higher you go the more ridiculous it gets and the US Supreme Court discussions along these lines are the absolutely most offensive. Also I'm a white male, and yes these category style promotions are always at the expense of white males. Do I need to be happy that my category always gets the disadvantage? I'm not even if we are socalled "overrepresented."
  • New Justice needs to be Objective and Independent
    I too was disappointed to see only one female selected in the final three. There were many other candidates who weren’t former partners with the new Chief Justice and just as qualified. Although she is likely a qualified candidate shouldn’t the 2nd Indiana Supreme Court Justice give the appearance to be fair and impartial? After all isn’t that what justice are supposed to be? Didn't the legislature pass a bill last legislative session prohibiting cronyism and nepotism?

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