Q&A with Adrienne Meiring, incoming executive director of the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission

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IL: Tell me about your career so far.
Meiring: I had actually worked at a public defender’s office when I was in law school. Pretty much I’ve been working since I was 16 years old, except for one or two years here or there, have a kid, things like that. When I was in law school I worked at a public defender’s office, then I worked for Judge Rudy Lozano right out of law school up in the U.S. Northern (Indiana) District, Hammond Division. After that, I went to the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office for approximately four years. I had been elevated in that period of time to the gang unit and to sex crimes. Then I went to the EEOC here in Indianapolis, which covers both the state of Indiana and then Kentucky, as well. What’s interesting about it is that it encompasses both the 7th Circuit and the 6th Circuit, and there are some aspects of the law, interpretation of the (Americans with Disabilities Act), that are different in the 6th Circuit than they are in the 7th Circuit, and that would kind of change our decision about whether to move forward. You would still determine something was a civil rights violation, but you might not want to litigate something in the 7th Circuit versus the 6th. It was interesting. That was one of my first experiences with a difference in how different circuits or court systems could interpret the law differently, and that would change your strategy. I was there for a couple of years, like 18 months, and I went back to the prosecutor’s office for another four years, so I did eight years at the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office. And I went back to sex crimes, and that’s when I was doing some of the bigger cases in sex crimes and child abuse, during that period of time. Then I came to the Indiana Supreme Court after the birth of my daughter. I first worked for the Race and Gender Fairness Commission and the interpreter’s certification program, and then I went to Judicial Qualifications, where I’ve been for a very long time.

You’ve worked in a lot of different areas of the law.
It depends on how you look at it. I’ve always had two interests: criminal law and civil rights, which also encompasses constitutional law. So if you look at it from that vantage point, all of the jobs make sense.

You’ve done a lot of public service.
It’s all public service. There’s nothing private in there. My dad worked for the state Department of Education in Ohio and my mother was an elementary school librarian and then a schoolteacher, a math schoolteacher, so public service is just kind of a given from my family dynamic.

Once you were working for the Supreme Court, how did you get to the JQC?
I had litigation experience. They were looking for someone who had more of an ability to do depositions and potentially to do hearings if that came to pass. And pretty quickly after I went over there it did, because Hawkins and Broyles, that was sort of one of my initial introductions to judicial qualifications.

Have you always had an interest in legal ethics?
It’s such a niche market. I don’t think anyone goes to law school and says, “You know what, I really want to be an ethics lawyer.” It’s not like that. It’s more of something that you’re involved in other areas, and you become involved in ethics as an extension of kind of who you are. All of my jobs have been about fairness and giving a voice to people who feel like they don’t have one anymore. And so it was sort of like when I landed in judicial qualifications, it was where I was supposed to be. I have lots of friends who say, “I can’t imagine a person more fair.” And it’s like how you hear other people talk about you and you’re like, “Oh wow, OK, you think much more highly of me than I do.”

When did you get to the JQC?
It was in 2006, because my son was born in 2007. I was doing some work for them in 2006, then much more after my son was born.

Why did you stay with the JQC?
Everyone in law should be striving for fairness, ultimately, and the truth — those are sort of the ideals. But the thing about ethics is that it holds even the people who are in positions of power to those standards, and that no one is above the rules. It’s also an opportunity. I used to present with a gentleman at the National Judicial College who said that the purpose of judicial conduct commissions is to protect the public from bad judges and to protect good judges from bad complaints. So you have to have that sort of component, as well, a real sense of discernment about what’s meritorious and what’s not, because you don’t want somebody’s reputation or livelihood ruined simply with a bad complaint, and that’s important to realize. So it’s a job that is constantly calling upon me to question values fairness, equity and doing the right thing. How can anybody be bored with that?

Once you got to the JQC, how did your role evolve?
In 2009, maybe late 2008, I became interim counsel, and then I just gradually moved into the counsel position.

What does it mean to be “counsel” to the JQC?
It’s sort of the head.

Is it the counterpart to the executive director of the Disciplinary Commission?
Not quite the same but similar. I have a much smaller staff, most of which I’ve built up. When I started the job, we had an administrative assistant who also had other responsibilities to other agencies. When I became counsel, I was it, and then I got a part-time attorney who was working for me, I didn’t have any law clerks or anything, so I’ve built up a lot of things in that agency. We do a lot more than where they started from. I do a lot more training. I do a lot more writing — the job is easier if people don’t violate the rules, so teaching people what the standards are is always sort of preferable.

How big is the JQC now?
I have a full-time administrative assistant, full-time staff attorney, a law clerk and a senior judge who does some work for us.

What have you enjoyed most about being counsel to the JQC?
I have liked answering questions for the judges, kind of helping them work through ethical issues before they become problems. I like analyzing issues to try to figure out what we need to do with a particular situation — what is the right thing? What is the fair thing? I like litigation, I won’t say that I don’t, (but) it’s not my primary interest. I would say I like teaching for the judges — communicating is probably the best. I like talking about ethics; not everybody does, so if people have to listen to me, I will make it entertaining.

What’s been hard about the job?
What’s difficult is taking a phone call from a judge when they’ve made a really bad error. For example, “Adrienne I have something to tell you.” And, “I just was arrested last night on … .” I’ve taken that call three or four times during my career, and I’m usually the first point of contact, and that can be really hard. It takes a variety of different skills at that moment: you have to be compassionate, not get too much information because you don’t want to be a witness, they need to report it. So you’re trying to do a bunch of different things, but you’re trying to be human at the same time.

Do you get much feedback when people don’t like an action the JQC takes or doesn’t take?
One of the interesting things about ethics is that there’s only so much you can say about certain things. We try to be as transparent as possible, but confidentiality rules prevent us from, and understandably, there are reasons for the confidentiality rules for both respondent-lawyers, respondent-judges and for commission and complainants, as well, as to why we don’t publicly say certain things. I find that many times when people make comments like that, they don’t have the entire landscape on something, which is why education is so important.

What’s the relationship between the JQC and the Disciplinary Commission?
Well, we have a number of things that kind of overlap, certain issues, ex parte issues obviously are going to overlap. Judges and lawyers are often the first line to see when there are problems in a courtroom, on both sides. If there’s a lawyer that has certain competency issues going on, judges might call me to find out what to do. On the other side of the fence, lawyers seeing judges with demeanor issues might call. So there is some collaboration between the two agencies when it’s necessary.

Why did you want to transition to the Disciplinary Commission?
It’s a bigger challenge. I currently am sort of over less than 1,000 judges, and there are 20,000 attorneys in the state, the vast majority of whom are never going to have any interaction with the Disciplinary Commission. But it is a bigger pool and a much wider audience, so it’s a greater challenge.

Are you in your new role yet?
We’re transitioning right now. We want to do this thoughtfully, so we’re trying not to just announce one day, “Hi!”

Do you have any immediate plans for the Disciplinary Commission?
Right now I’m meeting with a lot of people, stakeholders, from various different users of the Disciplinary Commission — respondent-lawyers, commission members, just a variety of different individuals to kind of get their input and insights. So right now I’m in the information gathering stage on a lot of those things. I definitely would like us to be reaching out, teaching, educating lawyers. Everybody wins when people know the rules and complaints aren’t coming to the disciplinary commission.

There has only been a handful of executive directors. Does that allow you to forge your own path?
I think that we’ll be looking at a lot of things. I want to have a positive impact, and I’m interested in sort of the philosophy and the thinking and beliefs of other agencies, as well, which would include the Court.

Did you work often with Mike Witte?
Fairly. We were housed on the same floor, had different issues that would come up that we would consult one other.

Did you learn anything specific from Mike that you’re taking into this new role?
I learn from everybody I meet. My mom, I would say that’s who I learn from — that and my kids are the three people I’ve learned the most from in life.

What challenges do you foresee in your new role?
I think anybody who takes a position like this and isn’t a little bit daunted is perhaps a much more courageous soul than I am, or maybe I’m just realistic about things. I think it’s important to listen, is maybe the most important thing I could say. If you want to move forward, you have to listen to other people as to what works, what could be done better and what might need to be left behind.

Tell me about your family.
I have two children, both teenagers, so they keep my very, very humble. They’re both fantastic, but they keep me humble. I told my son that I got the job and he goes, “Yay. What’s for breakfast?” That was sheer and utter love from my son. My parents are both from Kokomo, Indiana, but grew up in Ohio since I was 5, so I’m really — I bleed scarlet and gray. Obviously a lot of public service. There was a lot of math in my household, a lot of logic in my household. We had family dinners pretty much every night around a table talking about social issues and things like that, and my mother, being an elementary school librarian, quoting Disney, Dr. Seuss, and A.A. Milne. I often grew up hearing things like, “A person’s a person no matter how small,” or, “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything.” That quantified my childhood.

How did you come back to Indiana?
I am the first lawyer in my family, and I got the job with Judge Lozano, which is up in the Chicago area. I am licensed — although in inactive status in several of these states — but I am licensed in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and New York, and three of those I’ve taken the bar exam. At that point I was looking to get a job, because it was a two-year clerkship. I was looking at various different states, and Indianapolis is where I ended up.

How does your varied background benefit you now?
I think it’s beneficial because I rarely look at a question, issue or problem from one point of view. I’m always trying to look at it from the other person’s point of view and giving it the most innocent explanation possible until it is shown otherwise, and I think that comes both from my family background and from my varied work experience, because I haven’t done just one line of thought the whole entire time. And so I’ve had to think like a defense attorney, I’ve had to think like a prosecutor, I’ve had to think like a federal regulator, all of those things, and so I take that with me now.

You also have a role with the Judicial Nominating Commission, correct?
I do. I have vetted this entire Court. If you look at Article 7, Section 7 of the Indiana Constitution, there is a lot of commentary about the selection of chief justice, justices, and there is mention of the Judicial Nominating Commission and how they’re selected. There is one line within that it shall also serve as the Judicial Qualifications Commission. So that’s how you have one set of individuals but two separate bodies. It’s a constitutional agency, so I serve in both roles.

Are those two different roles?
Completely, it very much is. It’s different because there’s much more public access questions (at the JNC), making sure the trains go on time, providing whatever information that the commission members need or want, which is extensive. I’ve looked at judicial selection at various nationally and stuff like that, and our commission is very, very active, very thorough.

Do you have a replacement for yourself at the JQC/JNC?
I’m looking at all of those kinds of things. The court is taking this as an opportunity for efficiency, streamlining, so we’re just looking at a bunch of potential alternatives.

What’s the timeline for your transition?
The hope is 30-60 days. We don’t have anything definitive yet.

What else should we know about you?
I paint, oil paint, and I box. It’s fitness boxing, but it’s boxing.•

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