Stafford: In small towns, justice is personal, professional

Just ahead of the Labor Day holiday, Indiana Lawyer staff members took to the roads less traveled, visiting some of the Hoosier state’s smallest counties. We each spent a day finding out just a bit about how the law works in places like Liberty. And Portland. And Shoals. And Williamsport.

Senior reporter Marilyn Odendahl had this great idea: Let’s go to these places and try to tell the stories in photos first, words second. We hope the result you see in these pages gives new light to colleagues toiling in the judicial fields far from city lights.

Odendahl traveled to Union County, along the Ohio border, and was at first surprised by the dearth of basketball hoops; baseball seemed king there. Like the other places we visited, the legal community and the community as a whole was tight-knit: everyone knows just about everyone else. Yet that seeming quality can be a problem. Judges and prosecutors based in Liberty may have to gently remind litigants who come up to them, say, at a restaurant or at church, that those really aren’t the places to discuss their cases.

In Union, Martin and Warren counties, there is only one judge. So a litigant who wants a new judge simply because they know him or her might be out of luck. “We don’t have the luxury of leaving a case,” Union Circuit Judge Matthew Cox told Odendahl. Jay has two judges, plus a town court judge in Portland.

A few counties north of Liberty, also along the Ohio line, staff reporter Katie Stancombe was taken by the magnificent yet charming Jay County Courthouse in Portland. But that wasn’t all. In the quiet and laid-back community, she also was impressed by the compassion she witnessed from the lawyers and residents. “I felt welcomed there and gained a new perspective into the hard work that’s put in by its defenders of the legal system,” Stancombe said.

Managing editor Olivia Covington ventured southwest to Martin County, to Shoals and nearby Loogootee. “It’s interesting to me that a small, rural county has such a strong female presence in the legal system,” Covington said. That includes Circuit Judge Lynne Ellis and prosecutor Aureola Wright, as well as a female practitioner planning to run for judge when Ellis retires in a few years.

My journey northwest to Warren County and Williamsport changed my perspective on things like the weighted caseload numbers the courts use to tell how busy judges are. Warren Circuit Judge Hunter Reece’s docket may be statistically lighter than those, say, next door in Tippecanoe County. But the courthouse in Lafayette has an IT department, at least. Reece says when the internet goes down in Williamsport — as it does far too often — it’s his job to get it fixed. “Internet goes down, you don’t have court,” Reece said. Likewise, when someone calls Reece with some big, new idea, then asks Reece who his grant-writer is, he replies, “You’re talking to him.”

Reece has a bailiff and a court reporter. That’s the court staff for the county of 8,200 people.

While resources in Indiana’s rural courthouses are scarce, the will is strong to uphold ideals of justice in the places we visited. Partnerships and resource-sharing are stretching those resources, and legal professionals from larger nearby communities are crucial to keeping these local courts functioning.

We are privileged, and it has been our pleasure, to travel to these places and report our impressions of how the legal community functions on a smaller, more personal scale. Out in the country, it’s neighbors helping neighbors, everybody doing their part, and then some.

Might be we could learn something from how they do things in Liberty.•

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Dave Stafford is editor of Indiana Lawyer. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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