Supreme Court: Recusal not required though attorney was reference for judge

Though an attorney who served as a reference for his application to the Indiana Supreme Court served as counsel for an adoption case in his court, a Hamilton County judge was not required to recuse himself because of that relationship, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled.

In L.G. v. S.L., et al., 18S-AD-32, S.L. and W.L. filed a petition for adoption of Infant Male R in November 2015. Meanwhile, L.G. filed a paternity action that was consolidated with the adoption proceeding, and a discovery dispute between the adoptive parents and L.G. ensued.

Among the issues that arose during the proceedings was L.G.’s motion for recusal of Hamilton Superior Judge Steven R. Nation who had applied to become an Indiana Supreme Court justice. The adoptive parents’ attorney, Charles Rice, was listed as one of Nation’s professional references on his application and wrote a letter of recommendation for Nation during the pendency of the instant case.

L.G. argued Nation and Rice’s relationship warranted recusal, but Nation denied the motion and eventually entered a decree of adoption. The putative father then appealed, and the Indiana Court of Appeals sua sponte determined Nation should recuse himself on remand. The appellate court also reversed the dismissal of L.G.’s motion to contest the adoption.

While the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ ruling as to the actual adoption proceedings, it granted transfer Friday to address its disagreement with the lower court’s ruling on the issue of recusal.

Justice Steven David, writing for the unanimous court, drew on the case of Indiana Gas Co. v. Indiana Fin. Auth., 992 N.E.2d 678 (Ind. 2013), a case in which the movant called for Justice Mark Massa’s recusal due to his personal relationship with a project manager for one of the parties. Massa declined, writing it would be “disabling to this Court if we were required to recuse every time a ‘friend’ came before us as a lawyer for a party or worked as an employee of, or consultant to, a party.”

“Similarly, although Rice said kind things about Judge Nation in a recommendation letter and served as a reference for him, this alone is not enough to require recusal,” David wrote. “If it were, then Judge Nation (and any trial judge who submitted an application for an appellate judge position) would have to recuse himself in each case where one of the attorneys listed on his application and/or who wrote letters for him appeared.”

“This would be disabling to courts, particularly in small Indiana counties where only a handful of attorneys practice in front of the trial court judge,” he continued.

David went on to write that reference letters, by nature, are flattering, and there was nothing extra in Rice’s letter that suggested a special relationship between him and Nation. Further, Nation, as the fact-finder, was vested with discretion to assess the credibility of witnesses, and there was “nothing unusual or inappropriate about the trial court finding that (L.G.) was not a credible witness.”

“Judge Nation’s order made no findings about the merits of Father’s motion to contest the adoption or Father’s ability to be a suitable parent,” David wrote. “Accordingly, we see no need for Judge Nation to recuse himself on remand.”

The high court summarily affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision in all other respects and remanded the case for further proceedings. Justice Geoffrey Slaughter did not participate.

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