Top 10 legal stories of 2017 focus on law schools, court changes

Year End Review - Indiana Tech Law School

Experts including former Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard have sounded alarms for years about a looming crisis in legal education. The crisis hit home — hard — in Indiana in 2017.

The closing of 4-year-old Indiana Tech Law School in Fort Wayne, and the revelation that 138-year-old Valparaiso University Law School faced an uncertain future, made law school troubles the top legal news story of 2017, as determined by the staff of Indiana Lawyer.

While the fate of two Indiana law schools was the runaway choice for the year’s top news, many of the rest of the year’s top stories were close in staff balloting. Big news from federal and state courts as well as significant developments in the legal community and legislature were among IL’s top legal news stories of 2017.

Here are the Top 10 IL legal news stories for 2017, as well as those stories our staff singled out as worthy of inclusion in this Year in Review edition.

yir-valpo-law-school-122717-15col.jpg After admitting just 28 first-year students in 2017, Valparaiso University Law School announced none will arrive in 2018. (IL file photo)

Law school troubles hit home

Indiana Tech Law School closed its doors in June, disillusioning some students who believed the upstart had not been given enough time. Citing a $20 million loss and student admissions that never amounted to what the institution had expected, Indiana Tech announced last year it would close the Fort Wayne campus, so its shuttering was not unexpected.

More stunning were developments this year at Valparaiso University Law School. Valpo, which had been under censure from the American Bar Association for noncompliance with admissions standards, announced in August an incoming first-year class of just 28 students. The Class of 2020 was 73 percent smaller than the Class of 2019, though Valpo’s new 1L class boasted the highest LSAT scores and GPAs in years.

The ABA lifted its censure of Valpo in November, but that same month, the law school made another startling announcement. Due to “severe financial challenges,” the school said, no first-year students would be admitted in 2018. While insisting Valpo Law isn’t closing, university president Mark Heckler said the law school will be “exploring the full range of possibilities,” which could include affiliation with another law school or geographic relocation.

As for Indiana Tech, the ABA withdrew its provisional accreditation in October.

yir-mckinney-122717-1col.jpg Senior Judge Larry McKinney is remembered as a brilliant jurist with a playful sense of humor. (IL file photo)

Personal, professional losses in federal court

Kind, compassionate, focused, smart, talented, dedicated. Those are some of the words friends and colleagues used to describe Magistrate Judge Denise K. LaRue, 59, who died Aug. 2 after a battle with cancer.

Brilliant, gregarious, funny, without equal, one-of-a-kind. That’s how Senior Judge Larry McKinney was remembered after he died just 49 days later, at age 73.

Larue LaRue

The sudden losses of such experienced, hard-working, and well-liked jurists would hit any court hard, but the impact of the personal toll on the “federal family” of the District Court for the Southern District of Indiana was just part of the story. Already one of the busiest district courts in the nation, the court has operated for years under judicial emergency conditions, meaning judges handle an average of more than 600 cases each. LaRue’s and McKinney’s deaths led to the emergency lending of judges from district courts in Northern Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin to help keep cases moving.

But the court will never be the same. Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson called McKinney’s death “a crushing blow” after LaRue’s passing.

Of LaRue, the chief judge said, “Her loss to the members of the court is a permanent one.”

yir-goff-122717-15col.jpg Former Wabash judge Christopher Goff, left, takes takes the oath as a Supreme Court justice from Gov. Eric Holcomb. (IL file photo)

Goff succeeds Rucker on Supreme Court

After a pool of 20 applicants was narrowed to three finalists, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb selected a small-town judge as his first appellate court appointment when he named Wabash Superior Judge Christopher Goff to the Indiana Supreme Court. “Judge Goff is deeply devoted to the cause of justice, and his sharp legal mind has been honed by years of practical experience,” Holcomb said in announcing his choice on June 12.

Rucker Rucker

Goff succeeds Justice Robert Rucker, who had been the court’s only African-American jurist and the last justice on the court to have been appointed by a Democratic governor. Rucker retired this year after 26 years on the bench. Goff’s appointment is the last in a complete turnover of the five justices of the Indiana Supreme Court that began with Justice Steven David’s appointment in 2010.

“I think that if you make a decision to do public service, it’s important to do public service at the highest level that you can do it,” Goff said. “I was humbled to be considered in this process, and it’s been the thrill of my great professional career and my life serving in the Indiana judiciary.”

Rucker, 70, departed the court in May. “Having been afforded the opportunity to serve the people of the state of Indiana for more than a quarter of a century has been an honor beyond measure,” he said.

Ruling leaves state without means of executions

Capital punishment by lethal injection is the statutory method of execution in Indiana, but an Indiana Court of Appeals ruling now under review by the Indiana Supreme Court put a temporary halt to the state’s ability to carry out a death sentence.

Condemned killer Roy Lee Ward sued the Department of Correction after it changed the drugs used in lethal injection and announced the new formulation. The means of execution had not been adopted using public hearings or soliciting comment as required under the Administrative Rules and Procedure Act, the COA ruled in June. Judge John Baker wrote for the panel that the DOC’s current means of lethal injection was therefore “void and without effect.”

The state appealed, arguing that adherence to APRA has never been required of the DOC in establishing a means of execution. Ward argued, and the COA agreed, that because DOC had not been specifically exempted from complying with the administrative law statute, it is bound by its terms. The Indiana Supreme Court heard oral arguments in September, but its decision had not been handed down by IL deadline. None of the dozen people on Indiana’s death row currently have a scheduled execution date.

yir-barrett-122717-15col.jpg Amy Coney Barrett testifies at sometimes-heated confirmation hearings before her appointment. (IL file photo)

Notre Dame Law’s Barrett appointed to 7th Circuit

University of Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in November after Senate hearings that were marked by a pitched partisan fight over the role of religion in a judge’s decision-making.

Nominated by President Donald Trump to succeed retired Circuit Judge John Tinder, Barrett was confirmed 55-43. She gained the support of Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly and other Democrats who distanced themselves from questions raised during her confirmation hearing about her past academic writings concerning the role religion should play for judges. Critics blasted the questioning as anti-Catholic. After the smoke of the confirmation fight cleared, Barrett joined the court Nov. 10.

Barrett’s wasn’t the only high-profile controversy involving the 7th Circuit. Renowned and acerbic Judge Richard Posner, 78, retired from the court without notice in September. In exiting, he blasted a court he said had become “highly politicized” and dismissive of pro se litigants, among other complaints.

Merit selection comes to Indianapolis

Marion Superior judges will be reapplying for their jobs, in a sense, after the Indiana General Assembly this year passed a law establishing a unique form of merit selection for the Indianapolis judiciary. Marion County joins Allen, Lake and St. Joseph as the only Indiana counties where judges are vetted by a commission that recommends nominees for a governor’s appointment.

But the Marion County Judicial Nominating Commission is far different from those in other counties: it’s larger with more expansive duties. Not only will the 14-member panel nominate judges to fill vacancies, it also will recommend to the public whether judges currently in office should be retained, according to the statute. Voters then will have a yes-or-no choice of whether judges who seek another term will be retained.

The transition to this new system was anything but smooth. The Urban League, African-American lawmakers and community leaders condemned the proposal at the Statehouse. They claimed the system was discriminatory, pointing out that Indiana voters elect their judges in every county except those with the highest percentage of African-Americans. While opponents vowed to challenge the system, the commission had its first meeting in November, and no court challenges have been filed to date.

Key LGBT workplace ruling

The full 7th Circuit Court of Appeals became the first in the nation to extend workplace protections to include discrimination based on sexual orientation. The landmark en banc decision in Kimberly Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, 15-1720, created a split amont circuits on the issue. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reached the opposite conclusion, ruling Title VII of the Civil Rights Act doesn’t bar workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Kimberly Hively, a math teacher who initially brought a pro se discrimination complaint against Ivy Tech, claimed she was repeatedly passed over for full-time employment and promotions and eventually fired because she is a lesbian. In April, the 7th Circuit in an 8-3 decision held that Hively could proceed with her suit, holding that Title VII applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

After the case was remanded to the District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hively and Ivy Tech agreed to enter mediation in the dispute. An attorney who represented Hively applauded her bravery for bringing the case. “She changed the world,” said Gregory Nevins of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

2017 Year in Review - Marion County voting Julia Vaughn of Common Cause, NAACP and community members contest limited early voting stations in Marion County. (IL file photo)

Marion County sued over early voting

Marion County has provided just one location for early voting since 2010 after expanding early voting in 2008. Common Cause and the NACCP contend in a lawsuit filed in May that the situation in Indianapolis bars equal access to the ballot box, particularly for minority voters.

Other Indiana counties have expanded in-person early voting through satellite-voting locations open prior to Election Day. “It’s shameful that the largest county in our state only has one early voting site,” said Indiana NAACP President Barbara Bolling-Williams. Plaintiffs also challenged as unconstitutional a state law that allows one of three county election board members to veto satellite voting.

Former Republican Marion County Election Board member Maura Hoff blocked satellite voting, the suit says, meaning all early voting took place only at the City-County Building. The suit claims this created excessive lines and long waits, depriving voters of an equal opportunity to cast an early ballot, and suppressing turnout. The case is pending in the District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

yir-opioids-122717-15col.jpg Addiction to opioids — prescription painkillers to heroin — continues to increase CHINS cases. (IL file photo)

Courts struggle to deal with opioids

Across Indiana, the human toll of the nation’s opioid epidemic increasingly has become a daily fact of life for judges, lawyers, and the innocent victims — the children of addicts who often become children in need of services. The number of CHINS cases continued to skyrocket in juvenile courts in 2017.

Meanwhile, prosecutors, lawmakers and members of the judiciary debated whether the solution to the opioid epidemic lie in more money for drug treatment or funding for tougher law enforcement. Some cities, though — including Hammond and Indianapolis — sued drug companies and distributors over the societal costs.

Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush in September was tapped to co-chair a national judicial task force looking at what can be done to address the problem, especially as it relates to impacts on children.

Trump travel ban vexes immigrants, attorneys

After President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday, January 27, restricting travel from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yeman, Indiana immigration attorneys were flooded with calls from panicked immigrants uncertain how the order would affect them.

“It’s kind of chaotic at this point,” one Indianapolis immigration attorney said the following Monday, after a weekend dominated by news of pandemonium and protests at airports. Courts eventually blocked Trump’s initial travel ban, and a revised travel ban that also includes nations such as North Korea and Chad has had mixed results overcoming court scrutiny.

The Supreme Court allowed a revised travel bans to take effect in December.

In addition to the year’s Top 10 legal news stories, IL staff members also selected these stories as some of the year’s most significant:

Bar exam blues: Fewer than half the law school graduates who sat for the February 2017 Indiana Bar Exam passed — a troubling development that some observers feared might be a new normal. The 48 percent passage rate for the February exam was the lowest since 2002. Pass rates for the July 2017 bar exam, meanwhile, were relatively unchanged — 73 percent passed, a 1-percentage-point increase over the July 2016 results.

Indianapolis Criminal Justice Center: Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett in January announced plans for a new criminal justice center in the Twin-Aire neighborhood of the Circle City. The proposed facility southeast of downtown would combine courts, a new jail and other judicial functions with an emphasis on substance abuse and mental health treatment and services for offenders.

Staggering settlement: The state of Indiana agreed to pay $25 million to settle a northern Indiana family’s $31 million judgment against the Department of Child Services for its abuses in prosecuting parents based on falsified claims of child abuse. The settlement was by far the largest lump sum ever paid from the Indiana Tort Claims Fund.

Another round of alcohol debate: Lawmakers continued to study changes in Indiana’s alcohol laws that could include Sunday sales, among others. Ricker’s found a loophole that allowed it to sell cold beer in some convenience stores. Monarch Beverage again turned to court, where it unsuccessfully continued to wage lawsuits seeking to permit it to distribute liquor as well as beer and wine. A legislative panel made recommendations that will be considered in 2018.

Gun laws: The Indiana General Assembly heard from advocates and opponents of so-called “constitutional carry,” which would permit any eligible person to carry a concealed weapon without a license. The proposal is likely to be a hot topic in the 2018 session. Lawmakers last year also passed a bill allowing Statehouse staff to carry guns.

State whistleblowers, beware: The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that state employees are not covered by Indiana’s whistleblower law. Justices ruled 4-1 in a case brought by fired Indiana Department of Environmental Management employee Sue Esserman, who alleged she was fired in retaliation for questioning claims that the department paid from its Excess Liability Trust Fund.•

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