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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. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  2. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  3. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  4. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  5. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

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