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Judicial panel promotes civic education

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The Indiana Supreme Court hosted a panel discussion recently to discuss the broad topic of judicial independence, taking a lesson about how the courts operate to an Indianapolis college campus.

Adopting an American Bar Association Judicial Division project known as “The Least Understood Branch,” the event drew in more than 200 people Feb. 15 at Martin University. It was part of the court’s celebration of Black History Month. The program is a result of efforts by Disciplinary Committee Executive Secretary G. Michael Witte, who chairs the ABA’s Judicial Division and has created and hosted these events nationally.

Responding to the rising number of attacks on the judicial branch by the executive and legislative branches and the public nationwide, Witte said he wanted to spend his year in that ABA role emphasizing civic education to make sure everyone understands what is at stake.

“The public sometimes forgets that the judicial branch has to follow the rule of law, rather than what’s popular opinion,” he said. “I think this all indicates why there should be a call for civic education in our nation’s schools, and also why the legal profession as a whole must rise to defend our fair and impartial judiciary and the rule of law.”

Marion Superior Judge David Dreyer moderated a panel discussion on judicial independence that asked “Is it we the people, or we the courts?” Members of that panel included U.S. Judge Sarah Evans Barker from the Southern District of Indiana, Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis political and law professor John Hill, and IUPUI journalism professor Dan Drew, who has reported on the courts.

Beginning the discussion, Judge Dreyer asked the panelists about judicial selection and Hill responded that elections can be a “black hole” and discussed how Iowa can be viewed as an example of how judicial elections based on public opinion go against the whole point of the judiciary’s obligation to follow the law. In that state, the Supreme Court upheld same sex marriages, and voters in November tossed those jurists from the bench as a result of that unpopular opinion.

“You don’t write for the public, but you’re mindful of the confusion out there on an issue of the law,” Judge Barker said. “You write based on the law, but you don’t live in a vacuum and you don’t want to soapbox it.”

Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker also spoke about the state’s various judicial selection systems and Supreme Court operations.

In honor of Black History Month, the program included past Indiana State Bar Association president Rod Morgan, an attorney at Bingham McHale, who talked about an Indianapolis African-American attorney named John Morton Finney who was admitted to the state bar in 1935 and practiced until age 105.

The Indiana courts used Facebook to publicize the program, and it posted photos and information after the event. The page can be found at http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Indianas-Least-Understood-Branch/181048511917643.•

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. 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!!!

  5. 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.

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