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On the road, jurists give public access to appellate cases

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It’s no accident that on a college campus in Richmond recently, the Indiana Supreme Court heard a case that involves allegations of hazing and potential liability for an incident at a Wabash College fraternity.

Justices and court staff deliberate about which cases would be good ones for traveling oral arguments, Chief Justice Brent Dickson said. Ideal cases are those that have broad public interest, would be engaging for the public at the chosen venue, and are not highly technical.

15col-Road_Main.jpg From left, justices Steven David and Robert Rucker, Chief Justice Brent Dickson, and justices Loretta Rush and Mark Massa conduct a Q&A session with a Richmond audience after an oral argument at Indiana University East. (IL Photo/ Dave Stafford)

Indiana’s appellate judiciary for more than a decade has heard arguments around the state, many through the Appeals on Wheels initiative of the Court of Appeals. Judges and justices say the arguments promote transparency and give the public a chance to demystify a part of the judiciary many seldom see.

“At the 100th anniversary of our court, our goal was to visit every county in the state, and we almost have,” Court of Appeals Judge Melissa May said. “One thing it does is allow everybody in the public to see what our appellate court really does,” she said.

While the Supreme Court typically hits the road fewer than five times a year, the Court of Appeals averages about 27 Appeals on Wheels arguments each year, according to court spokesman Martin DeAgostino. Since beginning the effort in 2000, he said the court has heard 365 cases in 64 of Indiana’s 92 counties. Arguments most often are heard at high schools, colleges, law schools or courthouses.

“First, we look at cases where oral argument has been requested, then we look for a case that may be of interest to that area where we’re going or the type of crowd we expect,” May said. For an argument at a high school, for instance, “We try to find a criminal search and seizure case, preferably a school case if we can find it.”

The appellate panels also routinely

allow the audience to ask questions after oral arguments, so long as the questions don’t pertain to the case at hand.

Road-facts.jpgAfter the Supreme Court’s case in Richmond, the Q&A allowed the public to lift the curtain on the court’s behind-the-scenes work. Dickson explained to an audience of about 75 that when sitting in Indianapolis, the court typically retires after arguments and confers. Justices talk about the case and get a sense of each justice’s views and where consensus may lie. After the Richmond arguments, justices planned to confer upon returning to the Capitol, Dickson told those who watched the arguments.

An audience member asked the justices how the court decides who will write an opinion. Justice Mark Massa said it’s a marker of the panel’s collegiality that a justice who earnestly wishes to write an opinion usually gets to do so. But he allowed that there are times when competing interests prevail.

Massa explained that he and justices Robert Rucker and Loretta Rush each recently wanted to write an opinion. A coin flip settled the matter. Rucker won. “Seniority,” he quipped to a laughing audience.

May said the COA attempts to arrange Appeals on Wheels arguments so that the panel judges hear cases in the regions from which they were appointed. Cases usually are selected for traveling arguments about a month in advance.

“One reason we use a lot of criminal cases for traveling oral arguments is the state attorney general’s office has been wonderful to deal with, as well as the public defender’s office,” she said. People at the venues, too, “are really excited to have us there, and they bend over backwards to make sure everything runs smoothly.”

At Indiana University East, students in the criminal law program helped out with the proceeding. Sophomore Stewart Homdrom had the honor of gaveling the court to order as a special bailiff. Before the arguments, he and fellow students passed out programs and directed guests.

“It’s a big event for such a small campus,” senior Christa Ginter said.

The events also provide justices an opportunity to visit with local colleagues and talk about some of the things happening in Indianapolis that people around the state might not be aware of. Dickson said justices also learn the concerns of attorneys, judges and legal professionals in areas where the court sets roving arguments.

It’s a big event for the legal community, too. “When’s the last time you’ve had an opportunity to put a bug in the ear of people from the Supreme Court?” Wayne Superior Judge Darrin Dolehanty said as attorneys and others mingled with justices before the arguments in Richmond.

“Could we go to the Statehouse and watch these? Sure,” Dolehanty said. “But not without taking away from work or school.”

As a matter of convenience, Dickson said the court often schedules traveling arguments to coincide with judges’ meetings around the state. That was the case in Richmond.

Robert Chamness, director of probation for Wayne County, said the justices have come to I.U. East on prior occasions, and those events have been popular with students and people in the legal community.

“It’s just an opportunity to get to see some of the things that happen at the Supreme Court level,” Chamness said.

“I think it’s exciting to have the justices come to Richmond,” said Jane Wynegar, whose practice in Wayne County primarily concentrates in trusts, wills and criminal law. “I think it gives the community a broader view of the legal system.”•

Click here to read a recap of the arguments in Richmond on the Wabash College hazing lawsuit.

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  1. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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