As the first African-American to serve on the Indiana Court of Appeals and just the second on the Indiana Supreme Court, retiring Justice Robert Rucker said he doesn’t think of himself as a trailblazer, but he said it’s important the state’s high court look like the population of the state.
Aside from diversity of experience that informs the decisions issued by the court, Rucker said it builds confidence in the judiciary, particularly for young people, when they see people of color on the bench as well as a female chief justice.
Rucker spoke to reporters Thursday on his 70th birthday, announcing his retirement in the spring, though he said he hasn’t selected a date. The Indiana Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission immediately opened the application process for lawyers and judges interested in serving on the court, setting an application deadline of March 3. Applications are available here. http://www.in.gov/judiciary/jud-qual/3306.htm
Rucker said he hoped his successor would be “someone who’s well-qualified and brings to the table independence of thought, but some amount of life experience that gives voice at a table where oftentimes voices are not heard. So I guess I’m arguing in favor of diversity.”
While Rucker would have faced mandatory retirement in five years, he also had deliberated about whether to stand for retention in 2012. “I’m kind of an old-school guy, and I always thought you retired at 65. The end. There was no thinking about it, you just did it,” he said.
But he realized in 2012 that he wasn’t ready and hadn’t made plans for retirement. Now, the time was right. “I finally reached a point, I figured out what’s next,” he said. That includes spending time with his and his wife Denise’s 17 grandchildren, traveling, and perhaps doing some adjunct teaching and senior judging.
Before he leaves the bench, though, Rucker will travel with the court to his alma mater, Gary Roosevelt High School, for an oral argument scheduled March 9.
The appointment of Rucker’s successor will complete a total turnover of justices on the bench that began in 2010 with the appointment of Justice Steven David, ending what had been the longest period of continuity for the court in the state’s history.
Elevated to the Supreme Court by Gov. Frank O’Bannon in 1999, Rucker served with eight other justices — Theodore Boehm, Randall Shepard, Frank Sullivan, Brent Dickson, Steven David, Mark Massa, Loretta Rush and Geoffrey Slaughter. Prior to his Supreme Court appointment, Rucker served on the Indiana Court of Appeals after his appointment by Gov. Evan Bayh in 1991.
During his judicial career, Rucker authored 1,235 civil and criminal opinions. He served as vice-chair of the Indiana Commission for Continuing Legal Education, a member of the board of directors of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association, a member of the board of directors of the Northwest Indiana Legal Services Organization, and as chair of the Judicial Council of the National Bar Association.
He was born in Canton, Georgia, grew up in Gary, and is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. He graduated from Indiana University (B.A. 1974) and Valparaiso University School of Law (J.D. 1976), and he earned a Master of Laws degree in the judicial process from the University of Virginia Law School (1998).
He also was a deputy prosecuting attorney in Lake County, city attorney for the city of Gary and practiced law in East Chicago before joining the bench.
Read more about Rucker in the Jan. 25 issue of Indiana Lawyer.