Former Indiana justices reunite for event saluting Rucker

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Members of Indiana’s legal community who have worked with now-retired Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker gathered in Indianapolis Wednesday to celebrate the impact the long-time jurist had on the practice of law in Indiana during his quarter-century career on the appellate bench.

At Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law’s “Salute to Justice Robert D. Rucker’s Contributions to Indiana Law” event, the Wynne Courtroom was nearly packed with attorneys, judges and numerous Supreme Court justices who came together to share their thoughts on some of Rucker’s most well-known decisions during his collective 26 years on the Indiana Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.  Panel discussions on Rucker’s contributions to both criminal and civil law featured former clerks who worked either directly for the former justice, or for another justice who sat on the bench with Rucker.

The first panel on Rucker’s criminal law jurisprudence, led by Joel Schumm, an IU McKinney professor and former clerk to former Justice Theodore Boehm, featured comments from former Rucker clerks Hattie Harman and Leanna Weissmann, and Deputy Attorney General Ellen Meilaender. The criminal law panel discussed what they viewed as Rucker’s most significant criminal opinions, including the case of Anglemyer v. State, 868 N.E.2d 482, 490-91 (Ind. 2007), which Meilander said has been cited roughly 7,100 times in its less than 10 years of existence, while also considering Rucker’s approach to more general legal issues, such as stare decisis.

On that issue, Weissmann pointed to Rucker’s majority opinion in the case of In Re Adoption of O.R., 16 N.E.3d 965 (2014), which she argued before the high court. The Indiana Court of Appeals had dismissed a biological parent’s appeal of an order granting a third-party adoption petition of the parent’s child, finding the untimely notice of appeal meant the appellate court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. But Rucker’s opinion held an untimely notice of appeal is not a jurisdictional bar to appellate review, a decision allowing appellate courts to reach such cases on their merits.

That decision demonstrated Rucker’s willingness to follow stare decisis until individual constitutional rights were called into question, Weissmann said, and further showed how he considered the experience of the “everyday man” when deciding cases.

Then, a panel consisting of former Rucker clerks Abigail Rom, Tony Walker and Dino Pollock and former Justice Frank Sullivan clerk Bryan Babb discussed Rucker’s contribution to civil law jurisprudence, touching on cases such as the recently decided Goodwin, et al. v. Yeakle’s Sports Bar and Grill, Inc.

Aside from Rucker’s professional work, the clerks also reminisced on their personal relationships with their former boss. Harman, for example, recalled an instance in which Rucker played chess with her young son and encouraged him to keep playing even when he thought he could not win. And Walker, who, like Rucker, is a black legal professional, praised the retired justice for his efforts toward championing diversity and inclusion across the legal field.

But the highlight of McKinney’s event was a “conference reunion” consisting of Rucker, former Chief Justices Randall Shepard and Brent Dickson, Sullivan and Boehm. With Shepard as their chief, those five justices served together for 11 years, the longest period of stability in the high court’s history.

Rucker, who was the most-junior justice on that court, spoke first during the reunion, keeping with a tradition that the newest justice must always vote first during court conferences. Despite 11 years of holding that position, Sullivan noted Rucker never once asked for a pass on having to speak first due to a lack of preparation.

Though the “conference” discussion focused largely on the court’s memories of their time together, the former justices also discussed legal issues such as the state constitution, an area of law in which Rucker said Shepard was the leader, and summary judgment. The discussion of summary judgment led to a lively debate among the jurists about when it is appropriate, with Rucker saying his default position is to let juries decide cases and with Boehm advocating for forgoing a trial if plaintiffs cannot prove they could succeed.

The summary judgment debate was reminiscent of the actual conference debates the five justices had during their time together, they said, and they noted even after hours of conversation and disagreement, they could still leave each other with their friendships intact. The members of that court were always willing to listen to outside viewpoints, Dickson said, the trait of their court he said he admired the most.

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