Two emotions ran high during the retirement ceremony honoring Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Michael Barnes on Thursday: sadness and joy.
The sadness came from the loss of Barnes, known on the court as a legal scholar, an insightful jurist and a true public servant. As he prepares to officially leave the bench on Friday, friends and well-wishers said his loss will be significant, and his legacy will live on.
But joy dominated the celebration, with Barnes, his fellow judges and guests from across the state spending most of their time laughing as the prosecutor-turned-judge’s colleagues recalled stories from his 45-year career. Known for adding a flair of funny to his appellate court opinions, those who spoke to honor the retiring judge said his sense of humor has been a staple of his career both on and off the bench.
Former Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Sanford M. Brook recalled a story from Barnes’ prosecuting days, when he was preparing for a trial in St. Joseph County and had just finished voir dire. After thanking the jurors for their service, Brook said Barnes walked across the courtroom, returned to his seat and flipped out of his chair onto the ground. When the concerned judge inquired as to whether Barnes was OK, the quick-witted former football player brushed off the incident with a simple response: “Pretty agile for a big man.”
Fast forward to 1990, when now-Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett was elected to the office of Secretary of State. Among the many well wishes Hogsett received for his victory was a note from Barnes, who had a simple message: “I never thought I’d see that happen.”
More recently, as technology has evolved, fellow COA Judge Terry Crone said Barnes has not necessarily been keen on keeping up with the changes. Cell phones have proven to be a particular challenge for Barnes, Crone said, quipping that if he had a dollar for every time Barnes pocket-dialed him, he would have enough money to retire.
Once, a pocket-dial made Crone privy to Barnes’ drive home, when he was singing the hit pop song “Uptown Funk.” As an homage to that incident, Uptown Funk played in the Indiana Supreme Court courtroom as guests filed out after the ceremony.
But in between the laughs and occasional tears, colleagues from all stages of Barnes’ careers recognized the retiring judge for his significant contribution to the legal profession. Whether it was his advocacy for victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse, his precedent-setting opinions on issues such as the definition of a deadly weapon, or his work on the infamous U.S. Supreme Court Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc. case, Hogsett described Barnes’ legal accomplishments as a testament to his dedication to justice.
The St. Joseph County judge received numerous gifts and honors during Thursday’s ceremony, including a Sagamore of the Wabash presented by Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office, a challenge coin from the Indiana Supreme Court and a crystal shamrock representing his Irish heritage, his luster and his luck from his Court of Appeals colleagues. The guests also spent more than an hour praising Barnes for his loyalty, his humor and his community service, including initiatives such as founding the CASIE Center for child and sexual abuse prevention.
For his part, Barnes spent most of the ceremony wiping tears from his eyes as he listened to the tributes. He kept his remarks brief, thanking his family, friends and colleagues for challenging him and exposing him to new opportunities.
While he dismissed the claim that he will leave a lasting legacy on the court, the retiring judge did have one wish for how he will be remembered via the legacy of the dozens of employees, interns, externs and Conference for Legal Education Opportunity students who have served in his office.
“Doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons,” Barnes said. “If they do that – and I am sure they will – that will be the best, most cherished legacy. … My hope is that all of them, whatever your role in life, that you have the joy, the sense of accomplishment, the peace of mind that I have.”