A lifetime of service

March 25, 2015

Imagine reviewing your bosses’ expense claims and finding something that raises red flags. Now imagine it’s your job to go to your bosses and reject their claims.

Incidentally, your bosses are judges. And there are 15 of them.

You’ve just imagined one of the routine tasks of veteran Indiana Court of Appeals administrator Steve Lancaster. If you can negotiate this task and dozens of others for the court’s judges and 18 administrative staff members, you may be the person to take Lancaster’s place.

“My bosses have been 99 percent understanding on those issues,” Lancaster said. “I never felt like I had to compromise my integrity.”

But he acknowledges the demands of his job can make for some delicate situations requiring a deft touch. In a case like the above, he offered a couple of tips.

“One, is never tell (judges) ‘no’ in public,” he said. “Two, if you have to say ‘no,’ try to have another way to accomplish what you want to accomplish.”

He said it’s also best to stay out of the middle of judges who may not be seeing eye-to-eye at a particular time.

“Whoever comes to this job has to have people skills. The thing I learned early on in this job was I need to leave my ego at the door when I walked in and not let it get in the way,” Lancaster said. “I’ve been allowed to be open with my opinions and say what I think about things.”

Lancaster offers such advice as he contemplates what he’ll do when he retires at the end of September, after he completes a remarkable tenure overseeing the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day work of managing Indiana’s intermediate appeals court.

“I’ll turn 70 in June, and I will have been with the court 20 years in September,” he said. “It seems to be a good time.”lancaster-factbox.jpg
Between now and then, Lancaster will help the court select and train his replacement. He is the contact person for lawyers who wish to apply for the job that pays $120,000 but comes with enormous shoes to fill, according to colleagues and lawyers familiar with Lancaster’s long tenure.

“I think it is fair to say that most judges are used to being in charge and difficult to please when they don’t get the administrative support they want,” Court of Appeals Judge Terry Crone said. “I mention this not to disparage my fellow judges, but merely to suggest that simultaneously serving 15 different judges with often different ideas about how things ought to work is no easy task.”

Lancaster, Crone said, “has the integrity and diplomacy to implement court policy and allocate resources in a fair and impartial manner that has always amazed me.”

Praise like that is common for Lancaster, who prior to working at the COA retired after 28 years of service with the Army Judge Advocate General Corps. He was persuaded to apply for his present job by a longtime friend, and he was hired after interviews that included a session before all 15 judges. After he was hired, Lancaster moved back to his hometown of Shelbyville with his high school sweetheart, Pauline, now his wife of 47 years.

As administrator, Lancaster’s duties run the gamut from ordering furniture and monitoring the budget to overseeing court automation and serving as a liaison for bar groups and units of government. The job even includes providing legal representation for the court on procedural and administrative matters.

lancaster-3-15col.jpg Court of Appeals Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik shares a laugh with Lancaster during a weekly conference. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David, himself a veteran of the Army JAG Corps, said Lancaster has a strong legacy in the corps that he carried into his role with the appeals court. “The Army JAG Corps trains soldier-lawyer leaders and Steve is the perfect example – a consummate professional, trained and proficient, dedicated and loyal, a team player.”

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik said Lancaster has overseen a tremendous evolution of technology that’s continuing with the COA’s adoption of the Odyssey case management system this spring and introduction of electronic filing later this year. Lancaster even oversaw the court’s receipt of its first computers, IBM 386s.

“When Steve started with us 20 years ago, we were using typewriters, reading books to research the law, and deciding cases by districts,” Vaidik recalled. “He has been the foundation of our administration. Foundations are nearly impossible to replace – such is the case with Steve.”

Judge Rudolph R. Pyle III worked with Lancaster before joining the court, when Pyle clerked for his predecessor, now-Senior Judge Carr Darden.

“His length of service with the Court of Appeals of Indiana speaks to his commitment and professionalism,” Pyle said of Lancaster. “I personally want to thank him and wish him well.”

Appellate Judge Paul Mathias said Lancaster has a gift for professionally responding to judges individually. “But what I have always been most impressed with is the strength of Steve’s character. It is not easy to say ‘no’ to a judge, and yet Steve does so when circumstances warrant,” Mathias said. “Everyone needs a reality check from time to time, and Steve does that for the 15 judges on our court.”

Lancaster also works with the court’s senior judges, their clerks, court attorneys and other administrative personnel. Mathias said Lancaster “skillfully hires, fires and supervises a central, administrative staff that has grown as called for by the times, as well as all of the technology that now pervades the professional life of the court. These are not easy tasks, but he has done them well.”

But Lancaster said it’s the staff – small by comparative court standards – that deserves credit for work that largely goes unnoticed.

“We’ve continued to assign and run cases and produce quality cases,” he said. “It’s a quality court.”

Ice Miller LLP partner Brian Paul chairs the Indiana State Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Section and said Lancaster has been a constant during a period of significant change. “He successfully steered the court through a complete rewrite of the appellate rules. He skillfully managed the backroom while serving under several different chief judges. And he has been instrumental in helping the court become one of the most efficient, well-run appellate courts in the country,” Paul said.

Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP partner Geoffrey Slaughter, chair of the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Section, said, “We salute Steve for his many years of service to the Court of Appeals, the legal community and his country. He’s been a committed public servant for most of his distinguished career in both the military and civilian life. And we wish him all the best in retirement.”

Lancaster’s got a second job to fall back on in retirement – he’s a percussionist with the Shelby County Community Band. He’s going to remain active in his community, and he’s got a few post-retirement projects lined up, such as going through old family photos, catching up on reading, making more time for his soon-to-be nine grandchildren, working on his golf game, sitting down for some piano lessons, and taking up Spanish.

“I’m not anxious to leave this job,” he said. “I just think it’s the right time.”•


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