Marion County’s first judicial retention interviews are underway, with interviews completed for seven of the 16 Marion County judges seeking retention this year.
Questions by the Marion County Judicial Selection Committee have focused on judicial diversity, court specialization and the impending move to a new Marion County Justice Center.
For their part, retention applicants have used the interview process to highlight their service on and off the bench, and to offer advice on qualities the 14-member committee should look for in future judicial applicants. Some judges, however, expressed concern about what merit-based judicial selection might mean for diversity on the Marion County bench.
Here’s a look at what the first seven retention applicants had to say about their qualifications:
Judge John Hanley readily conceded that Marion County’s judicial system is undergoing significant change, telling the Judicial Selection Committee that its very existence is an example of innovation within the county. And even more innovation will occur when the new justice center opens, a change Hanley said will present an opportunity for county judges to break out of their “silos” and begin working more collaboratively.
The advent of electronic filing presents an ongoing opportunity for innovation in Marion County and across the state, Hanely said, noting that many judges, attorneys and litigants are still getting used to the electronic process. As e-filing becomes more prevalent, Hanley said it will be important for the court to ensure all parties – even those from more remote communities – have access to the technology they need to participate in an electronic judicial process.
As a 17-year judicial veteran, Welch said she has always strived to create a courtroom environment that is fair to all litigants, regardless of their background. She credited Indiana Southern District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt as her judicial mentor who taught her how to interact with all parties and treat them with respect.
Asked more specifically what it means to judge with “fairness and equity,” Welch stressed the importance of actively listening during court proceedings. Though she may have thought she understood an attorney’s point by reading their briefings, Welch said she often learns during the presentation of evidence that counsel was trying to make a different point than the one she understood. Thus, actively listening to proceedings and fully understanding each side’s perspective is vital to the fair administration of justice, she said.
Judge Clark Rogers presented a central theme during his interview before the committee: his passion for addressing the opioid crisis. Once a judge who presided over Class D felony cases, Rogers said he transitioned to a drug court because his heart was broken by the lives that were being destroyed by drugs.
With those emotions in mind, Rogers advised the 14-person committee to select judicial applicants who have a heart for helping those who need it most. Otherwise, the work could become too great of a burden.
“You have to have a heart for it, or it can tear you up and spit you out,” he said.
Judge Jose Salinas was the first Latino judge elected in Marion County, but he hopes that won’t always be his moniker. With a continued effort toward diversifying the bench, Salinas said one day he hopes the presence of Latino judges presiding over Marion County courts will become common.
Something else that is becoming commonplace within the judiciary is advancing technology, which Salinas acknowledged as a necessary evil. Though he considers himself an “old school” judge who prefers pen and paper over typing on a smartphone, the judge also acknowledged that technology can improve court services by increasing efficiency.
Like his colleagues, Judge Grant Hawkins acknowledged that the transition to a new Marion County Justice Center will likely increase collaboration among judges and bring them out of their so-called silos. That will be a welcome change, Hawkins said, as many judges can feel restricted by their specialized caseloads. Even so, he also cautioned that collaboration won’t bring about positive results immediately – it will take some time for judges to refamiliarize themselves with case types they don’t usually hear.
As current judges are preparing for a future that could broaden the scope of their work, Hawkins told the committee he frequently helps to prepare for the future of the judiciary by hosting law school interns. Those interns are not brought in to do routine paperwork, but rather are given a “full range of experience” that can include exposure to various facets of the judicial system, such as trips to crime labs.
Like Hawkins, Judge Linda Brown believes in the importance of investing in the next generation, which is why she frequently welcomes children into her courtroom. When the kids arrive, they’re not relegated to the back of the room, but instead are welcomed to stand behind Brown and view the proceedings through her eyes. That way, they get a full picture of what it’s like to be in court.
Part of being in court should be the presence of people from diverse backgrounds, Brown said, a facet of the Marion County judiciary she fears could be lost through the new merit-selection system. Brown told committee members she misses the interactivity of running in a judicial election, and stressed to them the importance of considering applicants from all ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Brown, who is black, shares that concern with the Black Legislative Caucus, which has warned that the merit-based judicial selection process could expose the county to a voting rights or equal protection lawsuit.
John MT Chavis II
Judge John Chavis ended Monday morning’s interviews by stressing the importance of community service. As a high school track and baseball coach, Chavis said his athletes and their families know about his day job, so he wants to act in a way that gives them faith in their judiciary.
“I want people to know that they have good people as judges,” Chavis said.
Aside from a heart for service, Chavis told the committee that all judicial applicants and eventual judges should be learners of the law who are open to gaining knowledge from their cases and the parties who appear before them. He, like his colleagues, also expressed the importance of selecting diverse judges, including judges from the LGBT community.
The Marion County Judicial Selection Committee will continue its interviews on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning. For continued coverage, follow @Indiana_Lawyer on Twitter and check back with theindianalawyer.com.