The Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission continued interviews Wednesday with the 22 candidates vying to replace retiring Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. The interviews concluded around noon, and the commission will narrow the list this afternoon to those who will be interviewed a second time in August.
Following are excerpts from Wednesday’s interviews:
Henry Circuit Judge Mary G. Willis, 45, said her experience in a trial court of general jurisdiction would give her insight to help draft the detailed opinions required of Supreme Court justices. Willis said that in her New Castle court she has to “write orders that people understand and help educate them.” The general jurisdiction trial court experience qualifies her, and she would “welcome the opportunity to write longer opinions.”
When asked about the most complex case she had tried, Willis noted a triple homicide out of South Bend that was appealed and remanded. “I worked every day to make sure I was fully versed on the facts,” she said.
Willis said key characteristics for a justice include fairness, and she said a judge needs to have broad experience and intellectual creativity. She said she would least like the inability to interact with citizens on a daily basis.
Willis noted her active involvement with the state’s Judicial Technology and Automation Committee and said she relies heavily on technology in court, including filing electronic protection orders.
“We need to lift the court records from those dusty courthouse basements to the cloud, literally,” she said.
She answered commission chair and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson's question about how her compatibility with other judges can be assessed by noting leadership positions in state judicial organizations.
Hamilton Superior Judge Steven R. Nation, 62, answered the opening question noting he would least like disciplinary cases. “That would be sad. I would look at the loss of potential and why people have not kept up with their responsibilities.”
Nation said he valued the opportunity to serve on a court of last resort. “Lawyers need to know where the court is going,” he said, “but the people have to understand that also.” If people lose faith in the justice system, he said, “at no point will the system work.
“We do that by making very clear decisions. We do that by opening up discussions with citizens. I just enjoy finding solutions to the problem.”
Nation received 48 letters of support from across the state, Dickson noted. He also pointed out that Nation has served only two years as a practicing attorney. Nation noted most lawyers don't handle a range of cases from probate to criminal law. “I've done every one of those.”
As a judge in Hamilton County, Nation said he's presided in an area that has grown from 60,000 to 280,000 people during his time on the bench. “I don't feel uncomfortable in a small county or a large county,” he said.
While embracing technology, Nation said courts have to be careful not to go too far, because it could, for instance, deprive justice to pro se litigants who might not have access to technology.
Asked how often juries get cases right, Nation quipped that as a prosecutor he tried 57 cases and won convictions in each, and that they got all those decisions right.
Erin Reilly Lewis, 38, Indiana University Health associate general counsel, said she would most enjoy as a justice the opportunity to extend the reach of the courts into the community, particularly schools. Drawing on her experience as a teacher and “mother to four crazy children,” she said, “I think I would really enjoy it and be good at it.”
Lewis said she least would like trying to fulfill the role of the court as budgets continue to shrink. “We are in a trying economy,” she said.
Replying to Dickson's observation that her experience with a large law firm, the U.S. Attorney's office and IU Health was “not linear,” Lewis said the experiences fit together on her career path. As a child of a military officer, she said she grew up with a sense of duty.
Commission member Bill Winingham asked Lewis how her experience competes with other applicants with far greater trial experience.
“I am the applicant with the least amount of tenure,” she said, but noted that her father used an analogy about cars: it's not the years, but the miles.
“I do think I have a fair amount of mileage in my 13 years experience that I think a lot of others might not have,” she said.
Lewis said that principle and temperament are important attributes for a justice, and she said she was thorough, fair and possessed critical analytical skills. “I think all those things are important,” she said.
Diane L. Parsons, 55, hearing member, Worker's Compensation Board of Indiana, said she participates in panels charged with adjudications and would value doing so on the high court. Her experience shows her “the collective wisdom of this board is far greater than the wisdom of individual members.”
Parsons said she would least enjoy, if appointed to the court, participating in a death penalty case. She said she would look forward to applying her background in court programs involving families and children and alternative dispute resolutions.
Asked about her administrative experience, Parsons said she participated in law firm management for large and small firms as well as with the workers' compensation board.
Parsons responded to a question about the most complex cases she's been involved with by discussing occupational disease cases. “Oftentimes, occupational disease cases allege exposure that can be difficult to prove,” she said.
Independence was the first characteristic Parsons mentioned as important for a justice, noting also impartiality, integrity, competency and good moral character as important attributes. She said it was important to adhere to precedent.
Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Cale J. Bradford, 52, said he really enjoys working with people and solving problems, and he said the swearing in of young attorneys and other such court functions are among the most enjoyable. He also said he valued the “thoughtful, informed, deliberate and wise decisions” the court must make and “doing things to move justice forward.”
That includes extending the Odyssey program to jurisdictions around the state. “I'm proud to say I was on the ground floor of JTAC,” he said. “I'll talk to you all day long about JTAC if you let me.”
As a trial and appellate court judge, Bradford said he has had to preside over death penalty cases and look in the eyes of defendants and victims. “I wouldn't describe it as fun,” he said.
Bradford also stressed the importance of civility, particularly in cases involving “issues that deeply divide a court. People can get very opinionated and polarized in these situations.”
Several commission members asked Bradford about a Supreme Court trial program in which video cameras are being installed in three Indiana courts where audio-video transcripts will form the official appellate transcript. He said the pilot project will be done with input from bar associations and stakeholders in the system. “This is kind of like a first look, and then you move on,” Bradford said of the pilot. “We're looking to learn, not looking to implement at this point,” he said.
Financial Industry Regulatory Authority arbitrator Julia Church Kozicki, 43, responded to the opening question by saying she would be able to apply the expanse of her legal experience. “One thing that really appeals to me is the breadth of cases the court considers,” she said. Kozicki also said she would enjoy the court's collegial atmosphere.
Citing her experience as a member of the Noblesville School Board, Kozicki said, “My hope has always been that we can reach consensus and find agreement.”
She said she would least enjoy participating in death penalty cases. “It's not something that you ever take lightly,” she said.
Dickson asked how Kozicki would be equipped to handle Supreme Court cases given the “glaring omission” in her application of handling trial court cases. She noted her experience and mentoring as a judicial clerk.
Fairness, Kozicki said, was an important characteristic for a justice. “I think it's important that you think about the law being clear for lawyers and non-lawyers,” she said. “Those are things I aspire to.”
“I think it's important that as the world continues to evolve, we continue to apply precedent that's come before us,” Kozicki said in response to a question about how her view of Indiana common law.
Winingham asked Kozicki what she most admired about the court. “What I truly admire was over last two decades … the court had the opportunity to really modernize the court.”
Lake Superior Court Judge Elizabeth F. Tavitas, 50, said she was “uniquely and specially qualified “ to be the 108th justice because of the person she is. “I have deep moral convictions … the law started out as a moral code. I have a deep understanding of the law, I have studied the law, and I believe I am an intellectual.”
“Most of all, I am a public servant. That's where my heart lies,” she said.
Tavitas said she would “absolutely love the back and forth” of deciding cases with colleagues on the court. She would least like dealing with a serious criminal case and having to reverse it based on a procedural error.
Dickson noted Tavitas' academic record and times in which her moral convictions as a Catholic could be challenged. He asked how she would balance those views as a justice.
“My deep moral conviction would be subordinate” to the law, Tavitas said, citing a ruling in which she determined a minor had a right to an abortion under the law. “I may or may not have a different view, but that's my job, I did my job.”
Dickson noted Tavitas had the rare experience of having been both a public defender and a prosecutor.
Tavitas said integrity was a key characteristic of a justice, as well as honesty and having a logical way of ruling on cases. She cited a federal case involving six defendants with varying culpability and a reckless homicide case involving reconstruction as the most complex cases in which she was involved.
Dickson also asked Tavitas about a property lien in her background, and Tavitas said the lien was discovered during her divorce proceeding and it was paid off the day after it was discovered.
Tippecanoe Superior Judge Loretta H. Rush, 54, said she would most enjoy the ability to work with some of the court's administrative functions, having learned about the duties of a justice in her committee participation.
“I was like a kid in a candy store” learning about the various programs and functions that would be available to her as a justice. Rush said she would embrace opportunities for community outreach.
Ruling on disciplinary commission cases would be her least favorite aspect of serving as a justice, Rush said, but she noted the importance of the role in judging more than 1,500 grievances filed annually.
Rush was asked about several pilot programs that have been undertaken in her court, such as electronic record filing. Her court also will be one of three in the state that beginning Aug. 1 will be equipped with cameras and audio-video systems to record the official appellate transcript. She said the cameras would not be intrusive.
She hopes to continue projects initiated through JTAC and access to justices for pro se litigants. “Wise use of technology can help courts as well as litigants,” Rush said.
Rush said that courts should be more proactive in letting the public know the justice system is public and open to them. She said she's invited people to come and observe cases.
Rush said she would push for sentencing reform for nonviolent offenders, noting that Indiana is increasing its prison population at three times the rate of neighboring states. “I really think we need to push for nonincarceration sentencing options,” she said. “It really does affect our community and the children (of those incarcerated).”