Some may say law and politics go together like love and marriage, but it’s more than a cliché when looking at how the Indiana legal community is being influenced and even transformed by the political process.
Lawyers and law firms are already seeing change based on what’s played out politically during the past year, while others are eying political possibilities personally or working behind the scenes to shape what’s expected to be a hot upcoming election season.
The change is evident: more political party leaders, elected prosecutors, and judges are moving on while attorneys holding varying ranks inside law firms have an eye for public office or want to influence those elections.
One of the biggest intersections between law and politics in the years ahead will be the race to determine who succeeds Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2012. Questions linger about whether the current governor, an inactive Indiana attorney, will pursue the presidency in two years.
Many eyes are on the state leadership race, which has some big names attached. Retiring U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, an inactive attorney in Indiana who served as the state’s governor two decades ago, announced recently that he won’t again seek the post, but others remain in the running and the legal community is poised to play an active role.
Melissa Profitt Reese, a partner at Ice Miller and a previous managing partner at the firm, is part of a group laying the groundwork for Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman to run for governon as a Republican candidate–up until Skillman announced Dec. 20 she wouldn’t run. While it is not a part of her day-to-day her law firm duties, Reese is keeping a keen eye on the political process and through her own advocacy has been looking to shape how the ballot is formulated and what options voters have.
That involvement reflects a key point about how important it is for lawyers to play a part in the political process, she said.
“The contributions by the legal community to help create good government either by running for office or contributing behind the scenes is a great service the bar can offer to our communities,” she said, noting that law firms need to take care in how they approach those activities. “Typically it is prudent for a law firm to be balanced in its political activism regarding the various political parties.”
But not everyone who’s impacting the legal community makeup through politics is doing so through a “politically active” role. Some are leaving public office and returning to the law firm or practicing ranks where they started their legal careers.
Following the November 2010 general election, the state has seen a number of experienced county prosecutors announce that they will be leaving office soon. One of those is Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi, who didn’t seek a third term. After eight years in elected office, Brizzi said he is planning to create his own “hybrid” practice involving legal analysis, media relations, and reputation management.
His new venture comes on the heels of extensive public scrutiny and criticism in the past year about his decisions involving political and business relationships, as well as his handling of case-specific details being released to the media. The latter led to a pending disciplinary case alleging misconduct for how he released information on two high-profile criminal cases through news releases and press conferences in recent years.
“You have some returning to firms or doing senior prosecuting, but I see this as a unique hybrid kind of law practice,” Brizzi said. “With the evolution of media and social media, I’ve learned a lot and oftentimes you have a potential legal piece along with a separate reputation piece that impacts your practice. Folks don’t manage the reputation piece as well as they should, because at first you are in the crosshairs and so you duck and cover. That may not be the best approach to take, and if you don’t manage the response correctly, it can have even more ramifications.”
Aside from Brizzi, two other long-term prosecuting attorneys leaving office are Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Stan Levco and Delaware County Prosecutor Mark McKinney. Levco lost his re-election bid after 20 years in office and will now serve as a senior prosecutor and teach trial education at Indiana University Maurer School of Law in Bloomington. McKinney was ousted in the primary election and is now going to work with a former deputy prosecutor in Muncie on the criminal defense side.
At the heart of the political process, two lawyers are leaving their Republican Party leadership posts to focus on their legal work.
Tom John, an attorney and lobbyist at Ice Miller in Indianapolis, is stepping down as Marion County Republican Party chair, a position he has held since 2007, citing time challenges of the unpaid position. As the party chair, John has played a key role in the selection of precinct committeemen and the process used to slate county judges for the May primary elections.
The second is Indianapolis attorney J. Murray Clark, a partner at Baker & Daniels who was also a state senator for 11 years. Clark is leaving the state party chairmanship he’s held since early 2006.
Those two changes echo what’s happening elsewhere in the state, but also go hand-in-hand with what practicing attorneys are anticipating as the election season shapes up with potential candidates vying for different types of political positions and offices.
Former Indiana Attorney General Karen Freeman-Wilson has her eyes set on the Gary mayoral race next year, and the northern Indiana attorney and former city judge is using her experience implementing the local drug court program to demonstrate her qualifications for that leadership post.
In Indianapolis, Melina Kennedy is leaving Baker & Daniels this month to kick into full gear her campaign for mayor against first-term incumbent Greg Ballard. This is not the first time she’s pursued political office in the past several years, having gone up against Brizzi for Marion County Prosecutor in 2006. She began her career working for former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson after law school and served as a deputy mayor during his term, and now she hopes to use that experience to become the city’s top leader.
“I came back to the practice of law that I love so much, but at the end of the day my heart is in public service,” Kennedy said. “I see how much good you can do in city government, and as I’ve had the opportunity to look at ways of getting back into that service, I thought this was a good time for doing that.”
Law students and recent law school graduates have an opportunity to use their legal educations to get started in government work, researching policy issues that fit their interests and possibly serving as a way into those political arenas, Kennedy said. It can be difficult with mounting law school debt, but she feels more should explore those possibilities.
“It’s great to see so many lawyers get involved in the process so actively, but our legal community is just one segment of a bigger political community that everyone’s a part of,” she said. “Studying the law, you can see why so many attorneys are involved: it’s because we have a true understanding of the process, and that means we need to have more involvement if that’s possible.”•