Semifinalist interviews for Court of Appeals vacancy conclude

The Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission is one step closer to choosing three finalists for an Indiana Court of Appeals vacancy as it concluded its final round of candidate interviews Wednesday.

The seven semifinalists – Jason Bennett, Morgan County Judge Peter Foley, Putnam County Judge Matthew Headley, Abraham Navarro, Vigo County Judge Lakshmi Reddy, Lisa Reger and Leanna Weissmann – were each interviewed for 30 minutes Wednesday, following a first round of interviews last month. Three of those candidates will be selected for consideration by Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Whichever finalist Holcomb chooses to become an appellate judge will succeed Judge John Baker, who is retiring at the end of the month. The seven-member JNC is led by Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush. Here are some highlights from Wednesday’s candidate interviews.

Leanna Weissmann, solo practitioner

Socrates described four virtues of a good judge: hearing courteously, answering wisely, considering soberly and deciding impartially. Asked by Chief Justice Rush which of those would be the hardest for her on the Court of Appeals, Leanna Weissmann pointed to the first: hearing courteously, or listening. For Weissmann, the challenge would be to remind herself to step out of her own shoes to understand the other’s perspecitve. But on the flip side, Weissmann told Rush and the JNC that she would excel at considering soberly, because she’s a naturally curious person who wants to hear both sides of an argument.

Asked more generally about her greatest weakness, Weissmann said she struggles with asking for help. As a solo practitioner, it’s easy to get into the mindset of doing everything yourself, she said. However, as she works with two clerks in her office — one a 3L and the other a recent law school grad — Weissmann said she’s learning to trust her clerks with more tasks and responsibilities.

Lisa Reger, Lorch Naville Ward

As a Filipino woman, Lisa Reger told the JNC that she’s familiar with discrimination. She’s watched her Filipino father be denied services that were granted to her white mother, and she herself has been denied service when her husband was not. But Reger stressed that she doesn’t hold bitterness from those experiences. Instead, as a Court of Appeals judge, she pledged to use those experiences to educate the bench and bar about discrimination and unconscious bias.

In her current career as a family law practitioner and mediator, Reger has learned the skill of listening to understand, rather than listening to respond. She said she learned early in her practice that she would not succeed in the law if she took an aggressive approach; instead, she’s learned to be deferential. Transferring that to the COA, Reger said she could employ that skill when working with other judges.

Abraham Navarro, Office of Clark County Public Defender

The JNC noted Abraham Navarro’s colleagues describe him as having both intelligence and common sense. Asked how he would combine those traits in appellate writing, Navarro noted he pursued mid-career journalism classes to improve his writing style. The goal of an opinion, Navarro said, should be to write in a clear and relatable manner; the language should be plain, and the concepts should be understandable.

Navarro has previously served on the trial bench, but Rush noted Indiana’s appellate courts have the unique ability to revise a sentence under Appellate Rule 7(B). Asked how he might approach a Rule 7(B) challenge on the appellate bench, Navarro said he would look to the law for his answer. Did the trial judge follow the sentencing guidelines, or was the sentence imposed outside of the acceptable range? The answer to that question, he said, will determine whether a 7(B) revision is appropriate.

Judge Peter Foley, Morgan Superior Court

Before becoming a trial judge, Peter Foley spent 17 years in private practice – a tenure that Chief Justice Rush noted tracks with her own 16 years at a firm. During that time, Foley said he developed a practical, common sense approach to solving problems, which has translated to his work on the bench. Specifically, Foley said he learned the importance of the timely resolution of cases, because litigation hangs as a “cloud” over the parties for its duration.

Foley also spoke of the need for awareness and courage when administering justice. That could mean questioning a piece of proposed legislation, or handing down a decision that goes against the popular opinion. Judges must be willing to make tough decisions, he told the JNC, and on the Court of Appeals, those decisions must be made even with the possibility of a dissent.

Jason Bennett, Indiana Supreme Court Office of Court Services

There’s one thing Jason Bennett wishes he would have elaborated on during his first meeting with the JNC: Not only is the Court of Appeals the first stop in the appellate process, it’s also often the last stop. Though transfer to the Supreme Court can be sought, the high court has discretion to decline a case. Given that reality, Bennett said he wanted to emphasize that understands the “gravity” that comes with serving on the lower appellate court.

Bennett also spoke frequently of how he understands the appellate process, noting his background in appellate practice and his current career with the Supreme Court. The JNC noted that Bennett’s references said he could hit the ground running on the bench, and he agreed. Having worked in the appellate judiciary as both a practitioner and on the “inside,” Bennett said he likely would only have to learn the nuts-and-bolts processes that are unique to the COA.

Lakshmi Reddy, Vigo Superior Court

Judge Lakshmi Reddy is a minority woman, but that’s not what she wants to be known for. Rather, if she’s selected to succeed Judge Baker, she wants the message to be that the most qualified candidate got the job, irrespective of race, gender, religion, etc. To her, an appointment to the appellate bench would be more about her work than her personal background; if you work hard and do the right things, she told the JNC, you can achieve your goals.

Reddy makes it a point to shy away from political and social issues, even declining to join certain organizations if they might give the appearance of partiality. But that doesn’t mean she’s ignorant of the world around her. Rather, Reddy said it’s a judge’s job to be aware of the social climate and have compassion on her fellow citizens. But when it comes to handing down a decision, she said, politics and social issues have no role in the process.

Judge Matthew Headley, Putnam Circuit Court

The Indiana Court of Appeals doesn’t recognize horizontal stare decisis, and Judge Matthew Headley thinks that’s a good thing. Reasonable minds can disagree on the issues presented in a case, he said, and those minds can include members of different COA panels. When that happens, Headley said it’s actually beneficial that horizontal precedent isn’t recognized – instead, the issue goes to the Supreme Court, where a final decision can be made.

Sometimes, disagreements on legal issues can lead to trial court reversals on appeal. Headley’s had that experience, but he holds to advice he received at the beginning of his judgeship: Don’t fear the reversal. Headley admits he doesn’t know every area of the law intimately, and he told the JNC he’s not afraid to ask other judges for help. But when he gets it wrong, the judge said he looks for ways to learn from his mistakes and get it right the next time.

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