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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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