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Picking an Indiana Supreme Court justice

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The Judicial Nominating Commission spent about 12 hours over two days in public interviews with 22 lawyers and judges, each of whom hopes to be Indiana’s next Supreme Court justice.

But when the interviews were over, it was the three hours or so behind closed doors on July 18 that narrowed the field to 10 semifinalists. Emerging from executive session, the commission reconvened in public, and member Jean Northenor made a motion naming the 10 semifinalists. The motion seconded, the seven-member panel voted unanimous approval with no discussion. The meeting adjourned.

il-interviews07-15col.jpg Indiana justice applicant John Young, left, speaks with Judicial Nominating Commission member John Ulmer. Young was among 10 semifinalists selected to replace Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

The six women and four men still in the running to replace retiring Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. will repeat the process of public interviews on Aug. 8-9. And the commission again will huddle in private afterward, this time to winnow the list to three candidates whose names will be forwarded to Gov. Mitch Daniels for his selection. (Click here to read about the 10 semifinalists.)

So what happens when those doors close?

“The first thing we do is sit down and say, ‘How do we decide?” said Chief Justice Brent Dickson, who chairs the commission that also includes three attorney members and three non-attorney members. “There’s no institutionalized process of voting.”

Northenor and other commission members who spoke to Indiana Lawyer after the semifinalists were selected described a collegial process that at the same time required hours of give-and-take to reach consensus.

“The chief justice as chairman will call on somebody and say, ‘What are your thoughts,’” said Northenor, a non-attorney member from Warsaw. “We talk about some who probably won’t make the cut.”

“It’s just a lot of deliberating,” to come to consensus on semifinalists, she said. “We start making a list. … If someone disagrees, we talk it through.”

The commission includes a majority of members who’ve served for less than two years, including the three non-attorney members appointed by Daniels: Northenor, who came on the board this year; Molly Kitchell of Zionsville, who was appointed last year; and Ryan Streeter of Indianapolis, who just last month replaced member Fred McCashland, who resigned.

Among attorney members, John Ulmer of Goshen also arrived on the board this year. And Dickson took over as chair when former Chief Justice Randall Shepard retired this year.

Attorney Jim McDonald of Terre Haute, who is the longest-serving commission member, is in the final year of his second non-consecutive term. Attorney William Winingham of Indianapolis is the second-longest tenured member.

Except for the chief justice, members serve three-year terms that cannot be consecutive.

“We take turns. We go back and forth,” Ulmer said of the deliberations. “Each member will say, ‘I think so-and-so’s a good prospect; we ought to invite him or her back.’”

Ulmer, a former Republican state representative, said it was noteworthy what members didn’t talk about. “There’s no politics discussed – none whatsoever.” There also was no discussion in executive session about the topic that has dominated the public discourse: whether the next justice should be a woman.

“We are one of the three ‘I’s’: Iowa, Idaho and Indiana, (that) don’t have a female on the Supreme Court,” Ulmer said. But he noted that Daniels had offered this advice when Ulmer came on the commission: “He said, ‘John, pick the three best qualified.’”

That is what the JNC is statutorily required to do. But qualifications can be in the eye of the beholder.

Determining semifinalists for the state’s high court was a challenge, Streeter said, because there’s no “track” to determine qualifications to be a justice, and the panel had to weigh applicants with a broad range of legal and life experience. “It’s a rich and diverse group of people.”

Streeter said he was impressed by how well versed commission members were with each candidate’s application and how the group worked together behind closed doors. “It’s a very collegial group. Everybody was incredibly fair-minded.”

Kitchell said deliberations were remarkably civil even as members made the case for applicants they deemed most qualified.

“You may not end up getting the result you want, but it’s a group discussion,” she said, adding that odds are long that all seven commission members would be in complete agreement on each candidate. “It’s nice to see how open minded people are. I’m amazed at the amount of time the chief justice allows us to present our impressions,” Kitchell said.

McDonald said non-attorney members’ participation is of critical importance.

“In my opinion, there are no shrinking violets on that commission as far as non-attorneys,” he said. “I have on more than one occasion changed my position on a candidate based on the position of the lay people.”

Commission members said neither attorney members nor non-attorneys tend to dominate the executive session talks.

“I would concede they are better qualified at evaluating some of the legal experience” of candidates, Kitchell said of the attorneys on the panel. “But it’s very important to all of us that the person we pick is a good person.”

During his first term, McDonald participated in no judicial appointments. This term, Sullivan’s replacement will mark the third justice he’s helped appoint in less than three years, along with interviewing Indiana Tax Court and Court of Appeals applicants.

“I never thought I would possibly be this busy,” he said, noting that his commission obligations have taken away from his private practice. But he said it’s worth the rare experience to have a chance to evaluate someone who likely will serve on the high court for many years.

“To me, it is probably the most significant responsibility I feel I’ve ever been in a position to participate in,” McDonald said.

In early August, the commission will restart the process, welcoming back 10 familiar faces.

“It’ll be difficult getting down to the final three,” Ulmer said.•

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  1. Ah ha, so the architect of the ISC Commission to advance racial preferences and gender warfare, a commission that has no place at the inn for any suffering religious discrimination, see details http://www.theindianalawyer.com/nominees-selected-for-us-attorney-in-indiana/PARAMS/article/44263 ..... this grand architect of that institutionalized 14th amendment violation just cannot bring himself to utter the word religious discrimination, now can he: "Shepard noted two questions rise immediately from the decision. The first is how will trial courts handle allegations of racism during jury deliberations? The second is does this exception apply only to race? Shepard believes the exception to Rule 606 could also be applied to sexual orientation and gender." Thus barks the Shepard: "Race, gender, sexual orientation". But not religion, oh no, not that. YET CONSIDER ... http://www.pewforum.org/topics/restrictions-on-religion/ Of course the old dog's inability to see this post modern phenomena, but to instead myopically focus on the sexual orientation issues, again betrays one of his pet protects, see here http://www.in.gov/judiciary/admin/files/fair-pubs-summit-agenda.pdf Does such preference also reveal the mind of an anti-religious bigot? There can be no doubt that those on the front lines of the orientation battle often believe religion their enemy. That certainly could explain why the ISC kicked me in the face and down the proverbial crevice when I documented religious discrimination in its antechambers in 2009 .... years before the current turnover began that ended with a whole new court (hallelujah!) in 2017. Details on the kick to my face here http://www.wnd.com/2011/08/329933/ Friends and countrymen, harbor no doubt about it .... anti-religious bias is strong with this old dog, it is. One can only wonder what Hoosier WW2 hero and great jurist Justice Alfred Pivarnik would have made of all of this? Take this comment home for us, Gary Welsh (RIP): http://advanceindiana.blogspot.com/2005/05/sex-lies-and-supreme-court-justices.html

  2. my sister hit a horse that ran in the highway the horse belonged to an amish man she is now in a nurseing home for life. The family the horse belonged to has paid some but more needs to be paid she also has kids still at home...can we sue in the state f Indiana

  3. Or does the study merely wish they fade away? “It just hasn’t risen substantially in decades,” Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law told Law360. “What we should be looking for is progress, and that’s not what we’re seeing.” PROGRESS = less white males in leadership. Thus the heading and honest questions here ....

  4. One need not wonder why we are importing sex slaves into North America. Perhaps these hapless victims of human trafficking were being imported for a book of play with the Royal Order of Jesters? https://medium.com/@HeapingHelping/who-are-the-royal-order-of-jesters-55ffe6f6acea Indianapolis hosts these major pervs in a big way .... https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Royal-Order-of-Jesters-National-Office/163360597025389 I wonder what affect they exert on Hoosier politics? And its judiciary? A very interesting program on their history and preferences here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtgBdUtw26c

  5. Joseph Buser, Montgomery County Chief Prosecutor, has been involved in both representing the State of Indiana as Prosecutor while filing as Representing Attorney on behalf of himself and the State of Indiana in Civil Proceedings for seized cash and merchandise using a Verified Complaint For Forfeiture of Motor Vehicle, Us Currency And Reimbursement Of Costs, as is evident in Montgomery County Circuit Court Case Number 54C01-1401-MI-000018, CCS below, seen before Judge Harry Siamas, and filed on 01/13/2014. Sheriff Mark Castille is also named. All three defendants named by summons have prior convictions under Mr. Buser, which as the Indiana Supreme Court, in the opinion of The Matter of Mark R. McKinney, No. 18S00-0905-DI-220, stated that McKinney created a conflict of interest by simultaneously prosecuting drug offender cases while pocketing assets seized from defendants in those cases. All moneys that come from forfeitures MUST go to the COMMON SCHOOL FUND.

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