Marion County’s first judicial retention interviews are now complete, and the 14-person Judicial Selection Committee has begun deliberations to decide whether to retain each of the 17 judges interviewed.
As with the first day of interviews, Tuesday’s discussions focused on judicial diversity, the planned Marion County Criminal Justice Center and challenges facing the court. But the second day of interviews was also filled with stories of overcoming hardships and turning personal tragedy into judicial triumph.
Here’s a look at how the final six applicants made their case for retention:
Judge William Nelson began his judicial retention interview by acknowledging the very real affect the opioid crisis has had on his family — he lost his stepson, Bryan, to an opioid overdose in 2009. Though the tragedy rocked his family, Nelson said he began to notice a positive change in his work — suddenly, he felt his heart begin to soften toward drug offenders who came into his court. In the wake of Bryan’s death, Nelson said gave up his habit of treating the offenders like criminals and instead began to recognize their problems for their true nature: mental illness.
In the years since, Nelson has channeled his change of heart into educating his colleagues about the nuances of addiction and how the court can best serve addicted defendants. Though he acknowledged that the aftermath of his family’s trauma — which also included financial trouble — could give pause to the selection committee, he closed his interview by reading a letter from the parent of a drug addict who had been in his court.
“God brings people together for a reason,” the letter read. “You are the person who is going to change the life of my only child by giving my son a chance at a new life.”
Asked about the provision of indigent legal services in Marion County, Judge Alicia Gooden was quick to note that insufficient resources are placing a heavy strain on the county’s public defenders. That’s no secret, as Indiana has recently launched a statewide effort to improve indigent defense services, including finding ways to lessen public defender caseloads.
The planned opening of a new Marion County Criminal Justice Center could also help the situation by de-specializing judges’ dockets, Gooden said, allowing public defenders to more evenly spread their caseloads.
Though Gooden acknowledged that some judges may be gun shy about trying new case types, she said transition would largely be a matter of re-education. To that end, Gooden encouraged the Judicial Selection Committee to recommend judicial applicants who show themselves as flexible and willing to learn.
Judge Steven Eichholtz prides himself on being technologically savvy, and he likes to think that if his entire staff were gone, he knows the technology well enough to keep his office running. And as court technology continues to advance, he sees wide application across all facets of the judiciary. For example, internet technology could help to increase potential juror turnout, which currently sits at about 50 percent, he said.
Eichholtz’s interview returned to the issue of jurors when he was asked about his perspective on the steady decline in civil jury trials. The decline has been seen as cause for concern within the judiciary, but Eichholtz said he doesn’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. Rather, the judge said it’s better for all parties involved to resolve disputes before they are forced to head to a jury.
The growing opioid crisis was consistently named as one of the greatest challenges facing the Marion County judiciary, which is why Judge Amy Jones sees a need for experienced problem-solving judges to help drug offenders on their road to recovery. Though she acknowledged that rotating dockets could help prevent judicial burnout, Jones also said that when it comes to problem-solving courts, it’s better to have judges who are settled into their niche.
Though she now has a niche as a problem-solving judge, Jones’ legal career path did not take her directly to the bench. Instead, she spent some time as a prosecutor, in private practice and working for a Fortune 500 company, where she served as a diversity and inclusion facilitator. Through that role, Jones said she learned how to interact with people from a variety of backgrounds, a skill that benefits her current work as a judge.
As a first-generation American born to Filipino immigrants, Judge James Joven views his life as the embodiment of the American dream. Things weren’t always easy for his family, and at times they had to go without. But now that he has achieved professional success, Joven said he can look back on his life experiences and use them to empathize with the litigants who come into his court.
Joven’s life and professional experiences have also taught him the value of considering all perspectives. When hearing a case, the judge said he doesn’t automatically align himself with the popular opinion regarding the issue he’s addressing. Instead, Joven makes it a point to consider the unpopular opinions to determine if they have merit. With both perspectives in mind, the judge said he is able to make better-informed judicial decisions.
Promoting diversity in a merit-based judicial selection process is a two-fold task, Judge Clayton Graham told the Judicial Selection Committee. First, the committee itself should advertise that it is accepting applicants from all backgrounds, including racial and ethnic minorities. But secondly, judges such as Graham — who is black — have their own responsibility to encourage their colleagues in minority communities to seek judicial offices.
“We become a better society when people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities come together to make society better,” he said.
Society is also made better when people are given a “second chance at life,” Graham said, which is why he is a proponent of expungements. Granting a former offender an expungement will open up new opportunities, including job opportunities, which will benefit both their lives and their communities, Graham said. He has spoken publicly about changes in expungement law and is currently planning a spring expungement seminar for the Marion County Bar Association.
The 14-member selection committee will publicly vote on retention for the 17 applicants Tuesday afternoon. Check back with the Indiana Lawyer for continued updates.