COA candidates express personal, professional opinions during second round of interviews

Before selecting three finalists to move up to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk for review to become the next judge of the Indiana Court of Appeals, 12 candidates sat before the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission on Tuesday to be interviewed for the post.

The appellate vacancy will be created by Judge James Kirsch, who is set to retire in September. 

Led in questioning by Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush, the seven-member JNC took turns around the table posing questions for each candidate. Topics for discussion included systemic racism in the judiciary, common law questions, personal life experiences and judicial philosophies, to name a few.

The JNC ultimately selected Madison Circuit Court Judge Mark K. Dudley, Ice Miller partner Derek R. Molter and Marion Superior Judge Heather A. Welch as its finalists. Holcomb will make the final selection on who will fill Kirsch’s seat.

Below is a recap of Tuesday’s 12 interviews. Live coverage can be found on Twitter via @Indiana_Lawyer.

Judge Mark Dudley, Madison Circuit Court

When asked about dealing with difficult people in the courtroom, Judge Mark Dudley said it’s a short answer. People, difficult or otherwise, simply want to be heard. He said that sometimes, if those same litigants, judges or families think they aren’t being heard, things can go wrong.

“If you meaningfully listen and reflect back what they say, it doesn’t solve all problems, but it does seem to diffuse the issues I seem to encounter,” Dudley said.

But one tool the judge doesn’t think is effective in dealing with courtroom tension is contempt of court. He likens it to like hitting someone over the head with a hammer. “That doesn’t solve anything when someone is upset,” he said. “I’m just fanning the flame as opposed to trying to resolve the dispute.”

Judge Brant Parry, Howard Superior Court

Judge Brant Parry has a family history of judicial service. His father, who also served as a judge, enlightened Parry with some wise advice upon graduating from law school that Parry keeps close to this day. That advice, he said, is to never assume that because you wear a black robe that you’re better than anyone else in the courthouse.

“He told me the importance of treating everyone with respect, and I think that has gone a long way with me,” he said.

During his time as a trial court judge, Parry noted that his frustration with the appellate court system has been with the slow pace of returning appealed decisions. But he said that’s been remedied in recent years. When asked, Parry offered that he has no qualms with the COA system today, pointing out that when he meets with appellate judges, they are always “very open to answering questions and trying to assist us.”

Stephen Creason, Office of the Indiana Attorney General

Unique abilities that Stephen Creason said he could bring to the appellate bench would be his experience practicing law in state government on a daily basis. He said his statewide work includes vast geographic diversity and engages individual members of the Legislature working on rules committees and working alongside the judiciary.

Asked about obstacles to justice in society, Creason pointed to a diminishing faith in the judiciary.

“Sometimes courts are called upon to decide inherently political questions, and that doesn’t mean that they are political,” Creason said. “It’s a cynical society, and I think that has real threats to impacting the independence of the judiciary.”

Zachary J. Stock, Indiana Senate Majority Caucus

Asked what his philosophy on dissents would be as a judge, Zachary Stock said he thinks they should be rare.  He wouldn’t want to be known as the “great dissenter.”

“Dissent serves an incredibly beneficial purpose,” Stock added. “Some of the greatest opinions we can remember are dissents.”

Stock’s philosophy in life, generally speaking, is to “always believe the better reason.”  He described his younger self as “hopelessly ideological” before he hit the brick wall of law school. That was an eye-opening experience that has since guided his approach to law and life.

“As the years go by you start to lose the certainty of youth,” he said. “I am always open to the other argument.”

Derek R. Molter, Ice Miller

Derek Molter said that if he is selected, he could offer the COA a perspective on government issues and a broader civil knowledge. He said he believes his skill set seems to align well with the need of the appellate court.

Growing up on farmland with a father who also served as a judge, Molter said the trait of being a hard worker is instilled in him.

“I have gone out of my way to not just represent large businesses, whether through paid or pro bono work,” he said. “I go out of my way to make sure I help the places I came from.”

When asked what he thinks he could contribute to the COA, Molter said he could help with technological advancement in how the appellate bench interfaces with the trial courts.

Judge Heather Welch, Marion Superior Court

One area that Indiana’s judiciary can improve upon, and an area that top-three finalist Judge Heather Welch, plans to advocate for is its access to justice. First, she said the state has to look at the current system and make sure access is available to those who need it.

“People don’t always have the same tools at their hands to get justice,” she said. “People in my court come in and they ask questions, and many come in without counsel. We have to continue to look at the administrative side on what can be done.”

Describing her self as organizer and planner — much to her family’s chagrin, she added — Welch said she has followed her grandfather’s advice that nothing can replace hard work. She said she takes that seriously because she loves the law, adding that she feels “very privileged and lucky to have been able to become a lawyer.”

Elizabeth C. Green, Indiana Department of Workforce Development

In Elizabeth Green’s opinion, the Indiana judiciary’s current system of disciplining lawyers and judges is effective. In the past she’s spent time researching and preparing a CLE outlining unacceptable behavior lawyers should avoid.

“Unfortunately it happens more than anyone wants,” Green said. “It serves as good reminder for us.”

Noting her faith-based background, Green said respect, understanding and doing the right thing are key elements that have influenced how she interprets the law and who she is today. “I think those are also critical pieces in becoming a judge,” she added.

Stephanie K. Bibbs, Marion County Prosecutor’s Office

In looking at how her life experiences impact her practice of law, Stephanie K. Bibbs said she is uniquely positioned because she has seen things from almost every angle. Having been a victim, a victim’s family and an attorney, Bibbs said she knows what it’s like to be in the trenches and can relate to her clients.

When asked if she thinks there is systemic racism in the judiciary, Bibbs said yes, adding that she has, unfortunately, been the recipient of it.

“I wish the answer was different,” she said.When we learn we are not as far apart as we think we are and if we come to the table to understand, we can eradicate those ways of thinking that have existed for so long.”

Judge Timothy Oakes, Marion Superior Court

Asked about what his approach to writing opinions would be if selected to the appellate bench, Judge Timothy Oakes said he would hope his opinions would be detailed and productive for both lawyers and for the common person.

“I think my strength is being able to connect with the common man, the pro se litigants,” he said.

Oakes, in speaking about whether he believes there’s systemic racism in the judiciary, said the short answer is, “I don’t know.”

“I keep trying to have my ear open to what that is. It’s important that we all listen to each other, and that’s part of the biggest issue.”

Judge Lisa L. Swaim, Cass Superior Court

When asked about her experience with mentoring young attorneys and how she would continue to do so if selected for the appellate bench, Judge Lisa Swaim’s face lit up with pride. She said that as a new attorney, Swaim herself had many people mentor her. That experience was invaluable.

“If I hadn’t had the wonderful mentors that I did, I never would have been as successful or (have) the depth of understanding of our responsibility,” she said.

The legacy she would like to leave if chosen as an appellate judge would be that of a judicial officer who was easy to work with, had a strong work ethic and would always be intellectually curious. Finally, she would want to be known as someone who would “go the extra mile to get the work done correctly.”

 

Judge Paul A. Felix, Hamilton Circuit Court

Asked about his thoughts on the appellate court’s diversity, Judge Paul Felix said he thinks the COA has done a good job of addressing the issue in recent years. One of the ways forward tgreater access to justice, he noted, is the judiciary’s desire to take a serious look at race and equity.

Broaching the topic of cameras in the courtroom, Felix told the JNC that his opinion on the subject now versus his opinion last year are completely different. Now he’s all for it.

“What I have noticed is that people do not behave much differently when there is camera in the courtroom,” he said. “There is no drama or bolstering, they don’t do the kinds of things I think we feared would happen.”

Patrick W. Price, Indiana Office of Management and Budget

Reflecting on his time as a clerk for Senior Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the Indiana Southern District Court, Patrick Price said his biggest takeaway was that he could be the only face of the judiciary someone sees in their life, so represent it well.

When asked how he would meet his obligation of expanding the knowledge of the judicial system, Price said that while he’s not sure if it’s a judge’s obligation, he thinks it’s very important that they do so.

“A lot of that is being out and present, explaining what we do and why we do things, working as hard as we can to be fair and consistent in our rulings, to avoid biases and prejudice, and to avoid making the system appear rigged,” he said.

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