As the first African-American to serve on the state’s appellate bench, retiring Indiana Supreme Court 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 it serves.
Aside from diversity of experience that informs the decisions issued by the court, Rucker said diversity builds confidence in the judiciary, particularly for young people who see people of color on the bench as well as a female chief justice.
Rucker spoke to reporters Jan. 19 on his 70th birthday, announcing his retirement in the spring, though he said he hasn’t selected a date. He 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 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. Chief Justice Loretta Rush paid tribute to Rucker in her State of the Judiciary address “for his long, faithful, and conscientious service to the people of Indiana.”
Here’s what Rucker had to say at the news conference announcing his retirement:
Not a trailblazer: “I come to work, I do my job, I go home. … I don’t consider myself writing any history or anything. … A regret that I have is that I’ve been on the court 16, 17 years now, a total of 26 years (on the appellate bench), and never during that period of time until recently did it occur to me to keep a journal. I would love to write a memoir, but when you are celebrating the 40th annual 30th birthday, you don’t want to rely too much on your own cognition to determine what happened in the past. … I can’t risk it being a piece of fiction.”
On the court’s collegiality: “You’d be hard-pressed to find the conservative wing versus the liberal wing versus the intermediate wing. … And I think it has something to do with the way in which justices are selected (by the Judicial Nominating Commission vetting candidates, forwarding to the governor three names from which to choose). That is a filtering process in my view. It sort of keeps the extremes from making it through that process. … I think that process eliminates the outliers, and so you get what I like to call a group of raging centrists. … I have never had a conversation around the table that centered around politics, other than when it comes up (in a case before the court). You don’t get that conversation.”
On the court’s transition: “For about 11 years, our court had the longest-serving combination of justices who had ever served on the court in the history of Indiana (1999-2010). … That change has been challenging. … You sit at this table for 11 years, you get a sense of a person’s ideology, you get a sense of what arguments are persuasive and which places you just don’t go because it’s just ineffective. You sort of know and understand the folks. It’s like a family. You spend a lot of time together. And then that gets upended, so it’s almost like you’re starting from scratch. What is it that motivates this person? What jurisprudential underpinnings inform your decision? … It’s been a challenge, making that adjustment.”
On a remarkable case: Rucker singles out the Marion County redistricting case Peterson v. Borst, 786 N.E.2d 668 (Ind. 2003). Marion County judges aligned along party lines to support Republican City-County Council President Lawrence Borst’s redistricting plan over one offered by Democratic Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson. The matter came before the Indiana Supreme Court, which at the time was comprised of three Democrats and two Republicans. Many expected the court to likewise split on partisan lines and endorse Peterson’s plan.
“Didn’t happen,” Rucker said. “Instead, we wrote almost collectively, like an opinion by committee, an opinion discussing at some length the independence of the judiciary and not being drawn into partisan redistricting wars. We fashioned a remedy neither side sought, neither side asked for: We drew our own maps that were specifically based on population, not politics. And I’ve got to tell you, it was really a proud moment to be on the court, knowing all of the political machinations that were going on at a different level. It was a very proud time, and that’s the one opinion that sort of grabs me to this day.”
On his formative years: “I grew up in Gary and went to public school, went to IU-Northwest primarily because neither I nor my parents had the resources to send me away to IU-Bloomington on campus. I worked in the Gary steel mills — every lad that age, once they graduated from high school, you worked in the steel mills. I was no different.” In college, he was drafted after he substituted a class that reduced his credit load from 13 to 12 hours, which changed his draft status from full-time student. He served two years in the Army in Vietnam, winning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for heroism.
When he came home, he was on a collegiate pre-med course when an encounter with a young attorney changed his career path. “He seemed to know everything about everything. He was knowledgeable, he was active in the community, and I said, ‘You know, when I grow up, I want to be just like you.’ … I left his office that day, drove to IU, changed my major. … I ended up going to law school instead of med school because of that young lawyer.”
Elevated to the Indiana 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 joing the Supreme Court, Rucker served on the Indiana Court of Appeals following 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.
Rucker also worked as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Lake County, city attorney for the city of Gary and practiced law in East Chicago before joining the bench.
Rucker was born in Canton, Georgia before moving to Gary. He graduated from Indiana University (B.A., 1974) and Valparaiso University Law School (J.D., 1976), and he earned a Master of Laws degree in the judicial process from the University of Virginia Law School (1998).•