Chief Justice Brent Dickson led the Indiana Supreme Court for just two years, but attorneys who practice before the court said his decision to hand the reins to a colleague is in keeping with the leadership tone he set.
Dickson expects to step down from his position as chief justice sometime before Sept. 1, according to a statement from the court. He will remain on the court as an associate justice until July 2016 when he will turn 75, the mandatory retirement age.
“He is one of the smartest men I know, and one of the most intentional men I know,” said Maggie Smith, an appellate practitioner at Frost Brown Todd LLC who clerked for Dickson from 1996 to 1998.
“When a new chief is selected this fall, he’s still there on the court to be a backup and to help the new chief get his footing,” Smith said. Likewise, Dickson has divided the court’s administrative duties and given new justices plenty of experience that’s positioned any of them to lead, she said.
“His goal in agreeing to be chief justice was to make sure the transition was smooth,” after Randall Shepard retired, closing the books on the longest tenure as chief in the state’s history, Smith added. “I can’t imagine a smoother transition.”
Dickson announced June 11 he will relinquish his leadership as chief justice, saying “The time is right for this transition.”
The Judicial Nominating Commission will select the next chief justice and has scheduled public interviews Aug. 6 with Justices Steven David, Mark Massa, Robert Rucker and Loretta Rush. The commission then will determine Dickson’s successor.
“It has been a great joy and a privilege to have helped continue the Court’s tradition of excellence – especially with four hard-working colleagues who are devoted to the law,” Dickson said in a statement. “I am looking forward to being able to spend most of my time in legal research, deciding cases and writing opinions.”
Dickson has led the court since May 2012, when he succeeded Shepard. “Knowing that my tenure as chief justice was limited, each associate justice has actively participated in much of the administrative responsibilities and decisions of the office of chief justice,” Dickson said.
“The court and state will be well served when one of my colleagues is selected as the next chief justice.”
Gov. Mike Pence saluted Dickson, saying he “has served our state well for the last two years as the head of our state’s highest court, and has brought his outstanding legal expertise and practical judgment to bear throughout his 28 years as a member of the court. I know him to be a man of great faith, and I applaud his long-standing commitment to public service in the legal system and look forward to his continued wisdom as he remains on the court.”
Attorney General Greg Zoeller said that Dickson continued the successes of the Shepard court and “presided over the Indiana Supreme Court with great dignity, wisdom and fairness, and all attorneys who appear before the Court know they must be prepared during oral argument for the Chief Justice’s thorough questions and penetrating insight.”
Jon Laramore, a partner and appellate lawyer at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, said that as chief justice, Dickson “maintained the atmosphere at oral arguments that was welcoming to counsel and encouraged a conversation between the lawyers and the justices about each case.”
Laramore said Dickson’s body of opinions on property taxes in the 1990s and numerous other areas were “path-breaking” in developing law around the Indiana Constitution.
“He has written the key cases on the qualified privileges clause, the property tax uniformity clause, double jeopardy and important opinions about special laws, religious freedom and, most recently, education,” he said. “Those opinions will live for many more decades.”
Indiana State Bar Association President Jim Dimos said he was surprised by Dickson’s announcement but pleased he will remain on the bench.
Dickson, Dimos said, “has been a pleasure to work with. He is collaborative in his efforts and was very interested in hearing the input of the practicing bar. I’m confident whoever his successor will be, that collaboration will continue.
“He was approachable and was interested in hearing what lawyers were thinking and he was very deliberate in his decision-making,” Dimos said.
Practicing before Dickson, Dimos won some and lost some. “At the end of the day, I always though Chief Justice Dickson gave due consideration to the arguments on both sides.”
As chair of the seven-member Judicial Nominating Commission, Dickson will have a say in who succeeds him on the court. The commission also includes three lawyers elected by attorneys and three lay members appointed by the governor. Currently, there are two members appointed by Pence and one completing the final year of a term who was appointed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law Professor Joel Schumm said court-watchers will be interested to see if more than one justice expresses interest in the leadership position. He noted that during Dickson’s selection, his colleagues on the court were unanimous in backing him for chief.
“There hasn’t been for more than 25 years a contested race,” Schumm said. And because the commission is mostly Republican, justices appointed by Daniels – David, Massa and Rush – are the likeliest candidates.
“It’s likely the person selected will serve 10 or 15 years,” Schumm said. Dickson, he said, “has done a very good job in a time of transition for the court.”
Dickson was selected in 1986 as the 100th justice appointed to the Indiana Supreme Court. His former colleague on the high court, Frank Sullivan Jr., said Dickson’s modest and inclusive approach has been appreciated by the many judges, lawyers and citizens with whom he has had contact.
“I am pleased that Chief Justice Dickson will remain a member of the Supreme Court,” said Sullivan, now a professor at IU McKinney School of Law. “During his long tenure – indeed, the second longest tenure of any Indiana Supreme Court justice in history – he has authored some of the most important and far-reaching opinions of the court. The breadth and strength of the court’s decisions will benefit from his continued efforts.”
Among the major initiatives during his tenure as chief justice, Dickson continued efforts to expand the Odyssey case management system to all Indiana courts; revitalized the use of volunteer attorneys to provide civil legal aid to the needy; and initiated the reform of Indiana’s pretrial release system to enhance public safety, reduce taxpayer expense and provide greater fairness.
Under his watch, the court advanced proposed rules requiring e-filing in Indiana courts and requiring mandatory reporting of attorneys’ pro bono hours.
Smith, Dickson’s former clerk, said few attorneys realize the heavy volume of administrative work that falls to chief justices, estimating writing opinions is probably less than a quarter of the job. “Frankly, I’m surprised he has issued as many opinions as he has as chief justice,” she said.
She’s not surprised, though, that Dickson decided to let someone else lead the court before mandatory retirement.
“For him, I’m thrilled that he’s going to use the next two years to kind of finish what he started, which is the development of Indiana law,” Smith said. “He doesn’t do anything capriciously. He does what’s going to be best for the court as a whole.”•