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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. "Am I bugging you? I don't mean to bug ya." If what I wrote below is too much social philosophy for Indiana attorneys, just take ten this vacay to watch The Lego Movie with kiddies and sing along where appropriate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etzMjoH0rJw

  2. I've got some free speech to share here about who is at work via the cat's paw of the ACLU stamping out Christian observances.... 2 Thessalonians chap 2: "And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last."

  3. Did someone not tell people who have access to the Chevy Volts that it has a gas engine and will run just like a normal car? The batteries give the Volt approximately a 40 mile range, but after that the gas engine will propel the vehicle either directly through the transmission like any other car, or gas engine recharges the batteries depending on the conditions.

  4. Catholic, Lutheran, even the Baptists nuzzling the wolf! http://www.judicialwatch.org/press-room/press-releases/judicial-watch-documents-reveal-obama-hhs-paid-baptist-children-family-services-182129786-four-months-housing-illegal-alien-children/ YET where is the Progressivist outcry? Silent. I wonder why?

  5. Thank you, Honorable Ladies, and thank you, TIL, for this interesting interview. The most interesting question was the last one, which drew the least response. Could it be that NFP stamps are a threat to the very foundation of our common law American legal tradition, a throwback to the continental system that facilitated differing standards of justice? A throwback to Star Chamber’s protection of the landed gentry? If TIL ever again interviews this same panel, I would recommend inviting one known for voicing socio-legal dissent for the masses, maybe Welch, maybe Ogden, maybe our own John Smith? As demographics shift and our social cohesion precipitously drops, a consistent judicial core will become more and more important so that Justice and Equal Protection and Due Process are yet guiding stars. If those stars fall from our collective social horizon (and can they be seen even now through the haze of NFP opinions?) then what glue other than more NFP decisions and TRO’s and executive orders -- all backed by more and more lethally armed praetorians – will prop up our government institutions? And if and when we do arrive at such an end … will any then dare call that tyranny? Or will the cost of such dissent be too high to justify?

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