As the former leader of the Indiana Court of Appeals, Judge Margret Robb knows what it takes to be the chief. Now, she’s sharing her experience with other judicial leaders as president of the Council of Chief Judges of the State Courts of Appeal.
Formed in 1980, the council is a networking and educational organization designed to be an information-sharing resource for judges of intermediate courts of appeals, including Indiana’s lower appellate court. Across the country, 41 states have intermediate appellate courts, with some like Indiana regularly rotating chiefs. But other states, such as California and Texas, have multiple chiefs appointed for life to preside over specific districts within their states.
Because of the varied makeup of intermediate appellate courts, Robb said the council is open to all current and former chiefs. The Indiana judge began her three-year term as chief in 2011, becoming the first woman in Hoosier history to lead the COA. She was then succeeded in 2014 by current Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik.
One of the biggest professional benefits of the council for Robb has been the opportunity to network with other chief judges and swap stories and advice. Council members convene once a year at their annual meeting, and members use the council’s website and other technology throughout the year to share resources.
The educational component of the council is wide-ranging, Robb said, noting that topics of discussion can include a legal issue, state statute or even human resources problems. “We try to include some aspects that chiefs might be interested in differently than the general court population,” she said.
The council has also received grants to produce white papers that address the ins-and-outs of being a chief judge more in-depth. A recent white paper, for example, discussed the experience of becoming chief for the first time, a topic that remains relevant even though the white paper was written a couple of years ago. Also, the council was recently funded to produce a white paper on developing effective internal and external communication strategies within a court. “We have a lot of balls in the air,” Robb said.
But she also has some agenda-setting discretion, which she has used to create two committees: one addressing technology and one addressing communication. The technology committee is comprised of tech-savvy council members who are tasked with exploring better internal and external information-sharing techniques, while the communications committee is exploring possible improvements to communication within the organization.
At the end of the year, the communications committee will compile and submit a report of its findings, and from there Robb said the goal is to implement changes that will ensure the council effectively shares resources and information with its members.
Another benefit of council membership has been the ability to bounce new ideas off other judges, Robb said. Sometimes courts get stuck in the way they’ve always done things, but meeting with other judicial leaders can inspire new methods that might benefit the citizens of the chiefs’ states.
Robb, for example, said she has received many requests for information about the Appeals on Wheels program, which regularly takes the Court of Appeals judges to counties across Indiana for oral arguments. The program allows the court to meet with local bar associations, lawmakers, students and other citizens, and other states have taken an interest in beginning similar programs.
Participation with the council has also given Robb the opportunity to share her experiences with a wider audience through the American Bar Association. That kind of berth gives the Indiana court the opportunity to work with and learn from courts across the country.
“It cross-pollinates,” Robb said. “People are learning the benefit of our court, and we want to learn about other courts so we can benefit the people of Indiana.”
Because the Indiana Court of Appeals elects a new chief every three years, the Hoosier delegation to the council is relatively large, Robb said. Vaidik is engaged with the organization as an active chief, while past chiefs — including judges John Baker, James Kirsch and Senior Judge John Sharpnack — have stayed involved.
Having the participation of past and present chief judges is beneficial to the council, Robb said, because the input and experiences of all chiefs can offer new insights into how best to lead an appellate court.
“That’s what makes the organization so valuable,” she said.•