JNC hears from additional applicants before selecting COA semi-finalists

With seven semifinalists named, the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission is preparing for a second round of interviews with candidates who are seeking to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Indiana Court of Appeals.

After a full day of interviews on Wednesday, the seven-member JNC, led by Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush, selected Jason Bennett, Morgan Superior Judge Peter Foley, Putnam Circuit Judge Matthew Headley, Abraham Navarro, Vigo Superior Judge Lakshmi Reddy, Lisa Reger and Leanna Weissmann to continue in their efforts to succeed Judge John Baker, who is retiring July 31.

Before selecting semifinalists Wednesday evening, the commission also interviewed six other applicants for the vacancy, including Johnson Superior Judge Kevin Barton, Erin Berger, Joby Jerrells, Crystal Rowe, Terry Tolliver and Bartholomew Superior Judge James Worton.

The 13 candidates were interviewed remotely via Zoom as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. While the morning session ran smoothly, there was a technological hiccup in the afternoon.

Specifically, Judge Barton was inadvertently kicked out of the Zoom “waiting room” prior to the beginning of his interview, so he was not able to log on at his scheduled time. After about 20 minutes, the JNC continued with the interviews scheduled after Barton and met with the Barton at the close of the day.

When they were finally able to connect, Rush thanked Barton for his patience and flexibility. The close of his interview led the commission into executive session, where commissioners decided on the semifinalists who would receive their support in the public vote.

Here’s a look at what else occurred during the afternoon interviews:

Crystal G. Rowe, Kightlinger & Gray

Sometimes as a lawyer, you have to advocate for a client with an argument you don’t necessarily agree with. Crystal Rowe of Kightlinger & Gray in New Albany has experienced that firsthand. She told the JNC of a time when a complaint was filed against her client, but insufficient postage resulted in the complaint being untimely. Rowe didn’t love challenging the complaint on timeliness grounds — to her, it felt a little like setting another lawyer up for a malpractice complaint. But even so, she knew it was her obligation to her client.

One thing Rowe does enjoy, though, is her work on the Indiana Supreme Court Rules Committee. She’s served on the committee for about five years, and she said her position has given her the opportunity to work with lawyers in varied areas of the law. Helping to craft the Indiana Rules of Court, Rowe said, has made her more thoughtful as she’s come to understand the role the rules play in Indiana’s legal procedures.

Judge Peter Foley, Morgan Superior Court

The COVID-19 pandemic hit everyone hard, courts included. In Morgan County, Judge Peter Foley took a leading role in crafting his court system’s response to the need for reduced and/or amended operations. But Foley declined to take all the credit from the JNC. Instead, he noted that he worked closely with other judges, health officials, local elected officials, law enforcement and other court staffers to craft a response that was best for the county. So while he may have taken the lead, Foley said he did not act alone.

The novel coronavirus has not been the only challenge facing Indiana’s courts. When asked about those challenges, Foley pointed to the cost of litigation. That cost, he said, includes the time it takes to resolve a matter. Costs increase in lockstep with the time a case is open, he said, which can keep low-income litigants out of court.

Lisa Reger, Lorch Naville Ward LLC

As a biracial Filipina, Lisa Reger said she can relate to the racial frustrations that have led to nationwide protests over the last two weeks. As a young girl, she can recall feeling like she was “not good enough” because her skin was brown. To that end, Reger advocated for the creation of a race-based CLE that could open lawyers’ eyes to the struggles minorities face. While not everyone will face those struggles, Reger said everyone should understand them so they can better relate to minorities in their communities.

As a family law mediator and juvenile court referee, Reger told the JNC that her greatest strength is her ability to relate to others and make them feel heard. That includes not just listening, she said, but also reading their body language. She pledged to take that skill to the Court of Appeals, where she said she would enjoy the opportunity to listen to other judges as they work together to resolve cases in the best interests of the litigants.

Leanna Weissmann, solo practitioner

In her work doing criminal appeals, Leanna Weissmann represents clients whose crimes can be egregious. But to her, the work is not about the crime — it’s about the client. Though a man might commit a terrible crime, she says underneath, she sees the little boy who was abused as a child. Humanizing her clients in that way helps Weissmann look past their flaws and zealously advocate on their behalf to ensure all parties in the proceedings against them followed the rules.

Even when she’s not in court, Weissmann says she has a personality trait that serves her well: an innate curiosity. As a college student, Weissmann studied journalism because she wanted to know the “why” of any given situation, not just the “what.” Transferring that to the Court of Appeals will be easy, Weissmann said – she’ll channel her curiosity into her legal research and writing to ensure she not only rules justly, but explains why she’s done so.

Judge Lakshmi Reddy, Vigo Superior Court

Early in her career, Judge Lakshmi Reddy clerked for then-Justice Frank Sullivan on the Indiana Supreme Court. She spoke highly of Sullivan during her interview with the JNC, but hedged when she was asked how she might want her own clerks to remember her if she ascends to the Court of Appeals. Reddy said she doesn’t think she could live up to Sullivan’s legacy, but if she gets to build an appellate legacy of her own, she’d want it to be one of mentorship and compassion.

In her own court, Reddy has had to make some tough decisions. She recalled getting an emergency guardianship petition and realizing that the local juvenile court was the proper forum. The petitioner urged Reddy to take the case anyway, telling her that it was an emergency that couldn’t wait to get on the juvenile court’s docket. Reddy deliberated but ultimately decided to grant the petition. Her actions were based on the belief that if the child was not removed from her home, she would be harmed. Reddy said she later apologized to the juvenile judge, but said she could not in good conscience send the child home.

Judge Kevin Barton, Johnson Superior Court

Judge Kevin Barton has a high respect for the juries who work in his court. He’s made the effort to speak with jurors after trials, and he said he’s been amazed by their attention to detail in their deliberations. Asked how often juries get it right, Barton said their verdicts are generally accurate. To him, there couldn’t be a better system.

In his own deliberations as a judge, Barton said attention to detail is also key. He told the JNC that his judicial philosophy is built on fairness, and he undergoes a laborious process when drafting orders. That process includes hearing the evidence a second time, a process Barton said helps him discern the most important elements. Though his process is work-intensive, he holds himself to it for the benefit of litigants.

Read Indiana Lawyer’s coverage of Wednesday morning’s JNC interviews here

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