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. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.