Indiana Supreme Court Justice Christopher Goff won the lottery.
That’s how he describes his legal career, at least. As a small-town-practitioner-turned-justice, Goff wants his journey from a married-with-children law student to a member of the state’s highest court to be a lesson to other practitioners: if he can do it, so can they.
Goff spoke about his legal and judicial career during a Friday afternoon session at the Indiana State Bar Association Solo/Small Firm Conference, held over the weekend in French Lick.
The justice has served on the high court for about two years, following a 12-year stint as a Wabash Superior Court judge. Before that, Goff worked as a private practitioner and public defender in Huntington and Huntington County.
The early days weren’t easy, Goff confessed. As a young husband and father, he took the work, and the pay, he could get, including a $25,000 a year gig at the first job he took shortly after his 1996 graduation from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.
His clients weren’t always fond of him, either. He remembers one of his first public defender clients, a juvenile delinquent, who was embarrassed to be seen with him — a young lawyer in a suit pulling up in a Chevrolet Cavalier.
“They were really laughing at me, because they knew I was a lawyer, but they figured I couldn’t be a very good lawyer,” Goff told the audience to laughs. “So my client was so embarrassed that he didn’t want to come out and talk to me.”
And sometimes, the work would wear on Goff. As a public defender, he spent every Thursday night at the Huntington County Jail “giving the bad news” – I’ll try your case, but it’s my opinion that you won’t be successful.
Goff was particularly struck by the lack of sentencing alternatives in his small, rural, conservative community. Alternative sentencing dispositions weren't really part of the Huntington County vernacular, but the young lawyer felt a sense of duty to share his ideas for sentencing alternatives with the local judges and prosecutors.
It wasn’t an easy process, but by building relationships, Goff said he began to see small changes in the county’s sentencing scheme. Drug offenders, for example, were given the opportunity to finish treatment, or to take classes before a criminal record precluded financial aid.
“What the judges began to see was, you know, every so often, that really works,” Goff said. “And these people who we were ready to throw away are able to come back into the court and not be a detriment, not be another bad story, but they’re able to be a success story.”
Goff continued with that mindset once on the trial court bench in 2005, leading the effort to launch drug and family recovery courts in Wabash County.
“They’re a lot more effective than other sentencing options because what they do is, they really just focus all of the resources the community has, whether they’re many or few, on a particular person,” Goff said of problem-solving courts in general.
Goff’s sentencing reform efforts did not go unnoticed. When he interviewed to become an Indiana Court of Appeals judge, he remembers the members of the Judicial Nominating Commission perking up and paying attention when he discussed his problem-solving courts.
Though he was a finalist for the seat vacated by now-Senior Judge Ezra Friedlander, Goff was ultimately not selected for the appellate position that was given to Judge Robert Altice in 2015. But when he received the call from then-Gov. Mike Pence’s counsel, he remembers being encouraged to apply again for future appellate positions.
Initially, Goff did not take that advice. When he learned the JNC was looking for a successor for now-retired Justice Robert Rucker, the Wabash jurist decided against seeking the position. But that decision never sat right with him — he remembers sitting in a local movie theater, feeling sick about his decision not to apply.
But Goff stuck with the decision until just four days before the application for the Supreme Court vacancy was due. That day, he received a call from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office and a member of the JNC asking him to submit his name for consideration.
After consulting his wife, Raquel — who encouraged him with a, “Yes, dummy, apply!” – Goff threw his hat in the ring and was named to the high court bench in July 2017.
About six months later, Chief Justice Loretta Rush asked Goff to take his experience operating a family recovery court in Wabash County and channel it into an expansion of similar courts across the state. Goff accepted the charge, leading a multidisciplinary team that so far has expanded family recovery courts from seven in January 2018 to 27 now.
“More than half of the kids in Indiana now have access to family recovery courts,” he said. “What does that do? That gives every kid who is affected by substance abuse disorder the best chance to not be removed from their family. … And that’s really key.”
But despite what, by all appearances, has been a successful career, Goff did not hide the fact that more often than not, the work he’s done has been hard. When Holcomb told him he had been selected as a justice, the jurist said he felt a 300-pound weight land on his shoulders.
“When you’re married at 21 as I was, you’re an instant dad, you’re in a fishbowl in a community like I was in, you better be perfect,” he said. “At least that’s what I thought. You need to be invulnerable.”
Admitting that he internalized the emotional and mental toll of his work, Goff told the audience he found relief in 2012 when he began sharing his stressors with a group of about nine men from his community.
“We complain and we cuss and we talk about what bothers us. We talk about what’s unjust, we talk about our spouses,” Goff said of the group he helped form. “It’s a safe place to do it.”
The justice encouraged audience members to likewise find a safe place where they can discuss their anxieties and fears, saying he’s found it to be a healing experience that helped put his mind at ease and improved his judicial work.
Goff was modest in discussing his achievements, saying he was just a 28-year-old public defender when he first had the idea about sentencing reform that would later define his judicial career. But, he said, he wanted to share his story to show other practitioners that their perspectives can also lead to important change.
“If an idea that a 28-year-old public defender has in the Huntington County Jail about why it’s important for this person to have an alternative sentencing disposition turns in 15 years later to a selection to the Indiana Supreme Court, there’s no reason why any good idea that you have as a practitioner can’t do just as much,” he said.