First remote interviews for COA vacancy held amid pandemic

In a first for Indiana, applicants seeking to join the state’s appellant bench were interviewed remotely Wednesday.

After multiple continuations, the seven-member Judicial Nominating Commission logged in to Zoom on Wednesday morning to hold 20-minute interviews with candidates seeking to succeed retiring Court of Appeals Judge John Baker. As the Indiana Statehouse — where the interviews are traditionally held — remains closed to the public because of COVID-19, the JNC took the historic step of offering remote interviews to keep the application process moving.

Baker will retire July 31 after more than 40 years collectively on the Monroe County bench and the Indiana Court of Appeals. A total of 13 candidates will be interviewed today, with seven participating in the morning session.

Aside from the virtual format, the appellate interviews were similar to other interview sessions held by the JNC, including the most recent sessions that led to Justice Christopher Goff’s appointment to the Supreme Court and Judge Elizabeth Tavitas’ appointment to the Court of Appeals. Chief Justice Loretta Rush leads off the questioning, and the six other members take turns speaking with the candidate.

The technology did not seem to be a barrier to the interview process. There were a few hiccups with applicants’ cameras or commission members’ audio, but each of those problems was resolved within seconds. Once the video and audio did cut out completely, but that too was resolved in less than a minute.

The JNC had wide-ranging questions for the candidates, touching on topics such as stare decisis, judicial philosophy, community involvement and even the ongoing national protests against racial inequality. Here’s a look at some of the issues addressed by each applicant:

Jason W. Bennett, Supervisor, Indiana Office of Court Services, Supreme Court Services Division

With experience in both private practice and public service, Jason Bennett told the JNC he has the experience that makes for a good appellate judge. On the private side, Bennett gained an understanding of how the court system relates to the litigants who come before it. And on the public service side in his role with the Indiana Supreme Court, he’s learned the nuts and bolts of the appellate bench. Coupled together, those two phases of his career would enable him to “hit the ground running” on the Court of Appeals.

If he makes it to the COA, one of Bennett’s first tasks would be to hire his law clerks. Rush asked him to weigh the pros and cons of career clerks versus limited clerk terms, and Bennett said there are positives to both. Career clerks come with a “storehouse of institutional knowledge” that’s hard to replace, while recent law grads offer a fresh perspective to the judges. If appointed to the appellate bench, Bennett said he could foresee having both types of clerks working in his chambers.

Judge James D. Worton, Bartholomew Superior Court

Like Bennett, Bartholomew County Judge James Worton’s career has taken different forms. He’s been a police chief, a private practitioner and now, a judge. He told the JNC he’s learned different lessons from each of those roles: tough decision-making during his time as chief, for example, and practical legal interpretation as a judge. If selected to join the Court of Appeals, Worton knows the message that will send: Diversity of experience matters, especially when deciding issues that will impact people’s lives.

As a former police chief, Worton was asked to opine on the ongoing protests over the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement. There are ways to make improvements, he said, all of which start by building trust and opening lines of communication with minority communities, something he said he worked to do as Columbus police chief. Accreditation and implicit bias training could help build that trust, he said, and he also suggested that officers undergo periodic psychological evaluations to ensure their work isn’t having a negative effect on their mental health.

Erin L. Berger, Erin L. Berger, Attorney-at-Law, Inc.

Seated in front of a forklift at the Evansville Old National Events Plaza, it was easy for solo practitioner Erin Berger to identify a time when she worked with a team. During her interview, Berger was part of an effort to keep the local children-in-need-of-services docket moving while maintaining a safe social distance; judges, lawyers and other relevant parties had gathered at the plaza in an effort to keep the courts open despite the ongoing pandemic. That kind of cooperation is especially important in CHINS cases, Berger said — clients are already traumatized, so the legal system should do all it came to keep from adding to that trauma.

As a public defender, Berger said she enjoys the “struggle” of helping her CHINS and TPR clients reach a resolution that’s best for their families. That’s why she wants to make the move to the appellate bench. There, she opined, she would have even more opportunities to achieve the best results for litigants.

Joby D. Jerrells, U.S. Army Financial Management Command

Joby Jerrells knew when he left law school that he eventually wanted to join the appellate bench. So, he set about building a career in legal practice, though he later changed course. Jerrells eventually began pursuing more diverse legal opportunities, but still in an effort to reach the Court of Appeals — a good appellate judge knows multiple areas of the law, he said, so he tried to gain varied experience.

Aside from his experience, Jerrells repeatedly told the JNC that his work ethic would benefit him on the Court of Appeals, which issues thousands of opinions annually. Describing himself as a “workhorse,” Jerrells acknowledged that adjusting to the court’s caseload would take time, but that didn’t deter him. Instead, he said he would view each case as a new challenge — an opportunity that excites him.

Abraham A. Navarro, Clark County chief public defender

As a public defender, Abraham Navarro doesn’t want to see his clients again. When asked by Rush what keeps him up at night, he said recidivism — specifically, the recidivism and relapse that often comes with an opioid addiction. The opioid crisis is prevalent in southern Indiana’s Clark County, Navarro said, so he’s often concerned about finding solutions that will keep his clients clean and out of the justice system.

Another issue Navarro was asked to consider was the ongoing call for the defunding of law enforcement. Noting that his experience with law enforcement has been positive, Navarro said he doesn’t think the defunding movement will fall into the hands of the courts right away. Instead, it’s an issue for legislative bodies to grapple with, Navarro said. Once the decision is made, it would then fall to the courts to evaluate that decision through ensuing lawsuits.

Judge Matthew Headley, Putnam Circuit Court

The second judge to appear before the JNC, Judge Matthew Headley of Putnam County says he possesses the “three I’s” of a good judge: integrity, independence and impartiality. The people of Putnam County, he said, have put their trust in him on multiple occasions, electing him both as prosecutor and as a judge. Moving to the Court of Appeals would be a ratification of that public confidence and would give him the opportunity to bring his rural community’s perspective to the Indianapolis court.

As a judge, Headley says his judicial philosophy is simply that the rule of law must control. It’s important for judges to “stay in their lane,” he said, and follow established precedent. If precedent isn’t available on a particular issue or if it’s outdated, it’s still important for jurists to know their role, he continued. In those cases, it’s important for a judge to do their research and look to the common law to develop a reasoned, fair opinion.

Terry Tolliver, Brattain Minnix Garcia

Terry Tolliver says he understands the value of diversity on the bench. After all, he was part of the first class to graduate from the Indiana Conference for Legal Education Opportunity. To that end, he championed efforts to recruit diverse individuals into the legal profession. He praised Rush, who recently released a statement calling for increased diversity efforts in the profession as racial tensions continue to build throughout the country.

Tolliver closed the morning’s interviews with remarks about Baker, the man he is seeking to succeed. Asked which appellate judge he would like to emulate, Tolliver noted Baker’s teaching abilities and bar involvement. But most important to Tolliver was Baker’s willingness to talk with others and offer advice. If appointed as Baker’s successor, Tolliver pledged to continue that tradition.

This story will be updated with coverage of Wednesday afternoon’s interviews. Follow @Indiana_Lawyer on Twitter for live coverage of the Wednesday afternoon interviews. Read more about the interviews in the June 24 edition of Indiana Lawyer.

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