Chief Justice Rush sees growth, change in Supreme Court’s 2020-2021 report

During a Thursday conversation with Chief Justice Loretta Rush, the state’s highest judicial officer reflected on the 2020-2021 Annual Report of the Indiana Supreme Court and discussed what’s to come in the new year.

The 62-page report offered reflections and insight about the work of the Supreme Court and its affiliated agencies during the fiscal year from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021.

Supreme Court justices considered more than 700 cases, heard 47 oral arguments and handed down 53 majority opinions, with 77% of its total opinions being unanimous.

With a sad smile, the chief justice talked about the upcoming retirement of her longtime friend and colleague Justice Steven David. She recalled their first encounter in the 1990s when both were juvenile judges, and recalled him as being an “all-star.”

“His spirit, his leadership, he is a big thinker and does great on opinions; and on top of that the projects that he has led,” Rush said of David’s accomplishments. “He’s been a very good friend and very hard worker. He has brought so much to the court with regard to the administrative efforts.”

On David’s replacement, Rush said that diversity is always a focus and that having a diverse bench is important.

“You want the best candidate and diversity is a factor in that,” she said.

Rush said that applications will be available the first week of January 2022 and interviews for the judicial vacancy left by David will take place in the spring.

Discussing the state’s new pilot program allowing cameras in courtrooms that launched Dec. 5, the chief justice said she’s not heard any negative feedback.

“The sky won’t fall by letting this happen and I think doing it in a pilot initially will be good,” Rush said. “The number of people watching trials on the live stream are high, people are interested.

“…The judicial branch is the branch the people understand the least and we have millions of people who go through the courts each year. So I think it’s a good thing,” she continued.

Rush also said she hopes the pilot program will make judges more comfortable with the idea of transparency.

Turning to the topic of bar exams, Rush said that she would like to see the bar passage rates in Indiana go up overall.

During the fiscal year, 470 applicants passed the Indiana bar exam. The Supreme Court in November 2020 announced that Indiana would adopt the Uniform Bar Exam in July 2021.

Data provided by the Supreme Court that was not included in the annual report found that 69% of all UBE test takers passed the exam in July 2021. First-time test takers passed at a 78% rate and 27% of repeat takers passed the exam.

“I look at the law schools in Indiana now and there is an uptick in applications,” Rush said. “We are seeing the average GPA and LSAT numbers go up, so I’m hoping that we see some parallel increase in bar passage rates.”

Regarding lawyer substance abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rush said the concerns regarding lawyer mental health, well-being and addictions parallels what Hoosiers are seeing in society today.

The chief justice said that in the past year, the Judges & Lawyers Assistance Program saw complaints from both lawyers and judges with mental health issues.

Situational stressors prompted 48% of calls made to JLAP, with the next highest reason at 23% attributed to mental health concerns. However, Rush said she believes JLAP is seeing more self-reporting than before.

Additional noteworthy takeaways for Rush included: the technological innovation work being done in the court across more than a dozen projects; the creation of the court’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; the return to traveling oral arguments; and looking at potentially creating housing courts, which would be more intensive work for people going through evictions.

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