Five Indiana Court of Appeals hopefuls sat for interviews Monday morning, beginning the process of filling the vacancy on the court that will be left by Judge Michael Barnes’ retirement.
The Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission — led by Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush — began the interviews on Monday with attorneys and judges from the court’s Third District, which covers northern Indiana and also includes Judges Paul Mathias and Terry Crone. Barnes will retire on June 1.
The commission’s questions were varied, covering a range of topics from precedent to pro bono service to bar passage and beyond. There were also a few questions that focused less on the law and more on the community such as, “How would you describe Indiana’s judicial system to a group of fifth-graders?”
The JNC will interview 12 applicants Monday and Tuesday before selecting candidates to sit for a second round of interviews on May 16. Here’s a look at what the first group of applicants had to say:
Throughout his career, St. Joseph County attorney John Tuskey said he has seen the practice of law morph from a calling into a business. Today’s attorneys can often become more concerned with turning a profit than with serving their clients, a change he said he wishes had never occurred. If appointed to the Court of Appeals, Tuskey said he would strive to reverse that trend by encouraging civility among attorneys who come before the court and reminding them that their job is to serve their clients and the law.
Looking inward to the court chambers, the JNC noted that while it’s common for judges to hire new law clerks every couple of years, some judges maintain the same clerks for longer periods of time. Asked about the pros and cons of long-term law clerks, Tuskey said there’s value in having a clerk who has a strong understanding of the law and the judge’s work. But at the same time, Tuskey said it’s important for clerks to understand the court “pecking order” and to recognize that their role is to support the judge in whatever decision is made.
Judge Steven Hostetler
St. Joseph Superior Judge Steven Hostetler knows that political issues sometimes will crop up in his work. But a strong reliance on precedent can help judges avoid the appearance of bias and instead ensure the public of their judicial independence. As an example of what not to do with politically charged cases, Hostetler pointed to the infamous Dred Scott decision, one he said was riddled with racism and intellectual dishonesty.
Looking to diversity more generally, Hostetler said the judicial branch must recognize that there is often a level of distrust of the courts among minority communities. Restoring the trust that has been lost is a matter of reaching out to those communities and engaging with minority citizens, he said.
Magistrate Judge Randy Coffey
Asked about the current state of public defense in Indiana, Randy Coffey needs only three words for his response: It’s a mess. The Steuben County magistrate judge decried the lack of centralized public defender offices in each of Indiana’s 92 counties, but he said the problem is without a current, obvious solution. Specifically, Coffey said without a consistent source of statewide funding, Indiana’s indigent defense may not be able to improve.
On a lighter note, Coffey drew a round of laughs when he told the JNC he often describes judges as referees when speaking with young students. Using a sports analogy brings the court system to life for Hoosier youngsters, Coffey said, noting that he often brings them into his courtroom and allows them to sit in the jury box or on the witness stand to get a feel for life in the courts.
Magistrate Judge Deborah Domine
In another life, Deborah Domine was a journalist who covered the courts, but Domine felt a call to get into the game that is the practice of law, which is why she began a career change in her 30s that led her to her current job on the Elkhart County bench.
But coming to the law later in her career means Domine is seeking career advancement opportunities — such as becoming a Court of Appeals judge — later in life. Acknowledging that she was among the oldest, if not the oldest, applicants seeking to fill Barnes’ seat, Domine said she views her age as an asset that has given her years of knowledge. She also said the legislature has recognized the worth of older judges by raising the judicial retirement age.
David Van Gilder
There’s been a debate recently about the value of issuing not-for-publication opinions, a common practice at the Indiana Court of Appeals. Allen County attorney David Van Gilder has received NFPs or memorandum decisions for cases he’s handled and said generally, he’s agreed that the issues addressed don’t warrant publication. However, he also said there have been a few times when he’s petitioned the court to reclassify an NFP as a for-publication opinion, and the court has been willing to reconsider its classification when he’s made a strong argument.
Rush noted that Van Gilder, in addition to being a partner at a Fort Wayne law firm, performs extensive pro bono service. Asked about the benefit of mandatory pro bono reporting, Van Gilder said he’s seen more attorneys step up to the plate and take pro bono cases as a result of the mandate. However, he said he also understands the concerns that some attorneys have regarding mandatory pro bono hours — that is, that mandating pro bono service could negatively impact the effectiveness of their day-to-day practices.
For live coverage of the Court of Appeals interviews, follow @Indiana_Lawyer on Twitter. Check back with theindianalawyer.com for more coverage of the interview process.