The Indiana Judicial Nominating Commissions has finished interviewing the semifinalists who want to replace Frank Sullivan Jr. on the Supreme Court. The commission went into executive session around 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Below are summaries of the four interviews that took place Wednesday afternoon. All applicants were asked about what qualities a justice should possess.
Henry Circuit Judge Mary Willis said the factors were most important in selecting a justice at this time: proven civility and collegiality, and breadth of experience.
“I think this is established by work on leadership committees,” Willis said of her experience. Willis said her legal experience, administrative experience and familiarity with technology would serve the court well. “I think having that background and how they will work together will be a complement.”
Willis said her private practice and experience on bench were of equal importance. “In any decision you're going to draw on that,” she said of her experiences.
Asked about whether she would interpret constitutional issues with a strict reading or holding the documents as living document, Willis would hold to the original writings, but said, “We are privileged to live in a democracy that has constitutions that are able to adapt as we go forward.”
Willis said diversity was important on the Supreme Court, but that could include life experience, personal background and legal experience. “I think different backgrounds will make discussions at the Supreme Court table more robust.”
In Henry County, Willis said the court system had embrace technology through the Odyssey system and other advances. “Technology is the one issue we're going to chase,” she said. “We may be small, but we're mighty.”
Technology is also the issue that she commented on when asked what could best improve the court.
John Young, partner with Young & Young Attorneys in Indianapolis, said the panel should most importantly look for diversity, but not just in terms of race or gender. He said it was important that someone have experience in a diverse array of legal practice.
“I think it's also important that somebody have a great deal of worldly experience,” he said, as well as someone who has leadership abilities. “Somebody who believes that talking to the people is just as important as somebody who talks to the powers that be.”
Dickson asked about whether interpretation of constitutional issues should be done strictly or through an evolving standard. “I would be inclined to try to determine what the founders and the drafters and the ratifiers of the Constitution meant,” Young said, giving deference to the meaning of terms at the time the document was adopted.
Young was asked about whether he's kept up with developments in criminal law after more than two decades away from that practice. He said he does through the traditional avenues of legal publications, advance sheets and websites.
Young said the Supreme Court could be improved by making sure Odyssey was available in all counties throughout the state, and that funding was the key. Where the legislature hasn't provided adequate money, he said, “It's a matter of carving out money from filing fees.”
Hamilton Superior Judge Steve Nation said experience was the major factor that must be considered for a Supreme Court justice. A judge who's managed cases and applied the law will have a deeper understanding of cases as a justice, he said. “The books do not tell you everything.”
“The other item I think you have to have is the ability to work with other people,” Nation said. That includes the ability to see where a judge's opinion is and how it fits in and can supplement the views of the other justices.
Dickson raised the issue of Nation's age. At 62, Nation is the oldest seminfinalist. “My devotion to duty and my devotion to people has never changed,” he said. He noted that the average tenure of Indiana justices has been nine years and he has 13 left to serve.
Asked whether he believed the law or the end result of a decision was most important, Nation said it was difficult for him to make a line distinction between the two, but he said it was important the there was consistency in the way the law was applied.
Nation also said he would interpret matters of constitutionality “as our original founders have given that document.” He said that's the contract on which citizen and lawmakers rely, and “If people want to change it, they have the right to amend it.”
Asked whether civil or criminal cases presented the greatest intellectual challenge, Nation didn't hesitate: civil. “In contracts case and in tort litigation, it's always been intriguing for me,” he said, citing it as a reason why he ran for the bench.
Nation also said the court could improve its communication with the public to make sure people understand what's going on in the court.
Tippecanoe Superior Judge Loretta Rush said humility was an important factory that could lead to judicial restraint. Character also is important. Commission member William Winingham noted that Rush was the lone semifinalist who mentioned humility as an important attribute.
Rush also said a broad and deep basis of professional and life experience was important, as was collegiality and consensus building. She recalled her grandmother’s advice that “ … a little sugar goes a long way,” and that collegiality “helps us to build on the unbelievable foundation we have in the Supreme Court.”
The experience as a juvenile court judge has been challenging, Rush said, noting that those cases call on multiple disciplines.
Empathy is important in demeanor but not in decisions. “I want everyone to walk out of the courtroom feeling they were heard,” Rush said.
Rush said she would soon be working with a legislative study committee on the Department of Child Services and that it was important to be involved with such efforts. “All that work flows down to the work we do with parents and children,” she said.
Rush also noted, “I always like the Supreme Court decisions where they send a little red flag out to the General Assembly” about an area where legislative clarification might be needed. “I think working with that branch yields so many results.”
Asked about areas where the Supreme Court could improve, Rush said finding equitable and stable funding for the local trial courts was paramount. “We talk like we've never talked before” about funding issues, Rush noted, adding that courts in Kentucky are closing one day per week to save money. She said local trial court funding was an issue of access to justice.