Two Indianapolis attorneys – Barnes & Thornburg LLP partner Jan Carroll and Lee Christie, partner with Cline Farrell Christie & Lee – will have to wait a bit longer to find out who their peers elect to serve on the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission.
An untold number of lawyers didn’t get ballots, so the voting deadline has been rolled back. Stakes are high, because the person elected will participate in decisions that will shape the Indiana Supreme Court. Chief Justice Brent Dickson will turn 75, hitting the mandatory retirement age for judges, in the final year of the three-year term for which Carroll and Christie are vying.
A glitch in mailings discovered earlier this month prevented some of the more than 7,400 eligible attorneys from receiving ballots. When Indiana Supreme Court staff discovered the problem, they scrambled to make sure all eligible voters received ballots, and the deadline was extended from the original vote-tallying date of Nov. 19 to Dec. 3.
Attorneys in good standing in Marion County and 18 other counties north of Indianapolis are eligible to vote for the successor to Indianapolis attorney William Winingham, whose term on the seven-member commission expires Dec. 31. Commissioners may not be elected or appointed to serve full consecutive terms.
Carroll and Christie each sent voters information about themselves in materials asking for support. For Carroll, the appeal included an overture to elect her as the first woman attorney to serve on the panel established in the early 1970s.
Prominent Carroll supporters formed a group called the 1893 Committee, which refers to the year that a female lawyer was first admitted to practice in Indiana. Backers “thought it was high time for a woman lawyer to be represented on the commission,” Carroll said.
Like Carroll, Christie has lined up big-name, influential supporters he cited in his mailings to voters. “I’m kind of reaching out to people who are more small- and medium-sized practitioners,” Christie said. He said it’s important for such firms to have a seat at the table.
Former Justice Frank Sullivan, now a professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, said the attorney member elected this year – and the commissioners elected or appointed in the next few years – unquestionably will influence the future direction of the court.
“In mid-2016, Chief Justice Dickson will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 and be required by the Indiana Constitution to retire. This means that the attorney elected will participate in selecting the nominees to succeed (Dickson),” Sullivan said.
“Of equal if not greater importance, the commission itself elects – actually elects, not just nominates – which justice serves as chief justice,” he said. “This means that when Chief Justice Dickson steps down, the attorney elected will also participate in selecting the next chief justice of Indiana.”
Dickson declined to discuss his thoughts about a potential successor. But as chair of the panel that includes three attorney members elected by lawyers and three non-lawyer members appointed by the governor, Dickson would hold considerable influence over the selection of the justice who succeeds him and have an even greater say on who the commission selects as the next chief justice.
At the time of Dickson’s mandatory retirement, the panel will include three members appointed by Gov. Mike Pence. The term of non-lawyer member Molly Kitchell, representing COA District 1, expires Dec. 31, and a Pence spokeswoman said no decision had been made regarding a successor. Indiana Code 33-27-2-1 provides that the governor appoint commissioners one month before terms expire, but commissioners may continue to serve until such time as appointments have been made.
Christie has been a practicing trial attorney for 32 years, and Carroll a litigator for almost 28 years. Neither said they were motivated to seek election to the commission by the prospect of having a say in future decisions on who will serve on and lead the Supreme Court.
“My motivation was just having some input on the judges that would be screened to go to the governor,” Christie said. Both Christie and Carroll said judicial temperament would be a key consideration in evaluating nominees to the judiciary.
“I feel that based on my experience as a trial lawyer and a state court practitioner, I have a good sense of what it is that makes a good judge, and we all have an interest in having quality appellate judges,” Carroll said.
Before she began practicing law, Carroll was an Associated Press Statehouse reporter who covered the merit selection of Dickson and Randall Shepard as justices. “I had an interest in it from my reporting days, and that obviously continued in my law practice.”
Along with his experience in the courtroom, Christie has also operated an alternative dispute resolution practice that he said in 20 years has handled some 2,500 cases. “My ideals are more from the individual and from the more small-firm perspective as opposed to the more big-corporation, big-firm perspective,” he said.
Addressing the voting glitch, Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathryn Dolan said ballots will be counted for attorneys who have already returned them, so they need not take further action.
On Nov. 12, the court issued an order that extended the balloting deadline, but the order signed by Dickson shed little light on what happened or why. “During the week of Nov. 4, 2013, it came to the Clerk and the Court’s attention that while most eligible electors had received their ballots and accompanying materials through the mail, many had not,” the order says. “After further investigation, the Clerk determined that an unidentified issue with the delivery of the mail had caused an unknown number of ballots and accompanying materials not to be delivered to eligible voters.”
The commission’s three attorney members are elected by lawyers in each of the three geographical COA districts, and the three governor-appointed non-lawyer commissioners also are selected from each of those districts. The panel interviews candidates and recommends finalists for vacancies on the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Tax Court, from which the governor chooses appointees.
The commission members also serve as the Commission on Judicial Qualifications, which investigates complaints against judges.
Court of Appeals District 2 is made up of Adams, Blackford, Carroll, Cass, Clinton, Delaware, Grant, Hamilton, Howard, Huntington, Jay, Madison, Marion, Miami, Tippecanoe, Tipton, Wabash, Wells and White counties.•