Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush will serve a second term as head of the Hoosier judiciary after a unanimous reappointment vote Wednesday from the Judicial Nominating Commission.
The JNC, which is chaired by Rush, met Wednesday morning to name Indiana’s next chief justice and consider Rush’s reappointment bid. Rush, the first woman to serve as chief, was named to her position by then-Gov. Mike Pence in July 2014, and Indiana law requires the appointment or reappointment of the chief to occur every five years.
“It’s a great job,” Rush told the JNC during her Wednesday morning interview.
The commission, including Rush, began the reappointment process by speaking with each of the other four justices serving on the Supreme Court, beginning with Justice Geoffrey Slaughter. Slaughter spoke to the commission by phone because he was at the Indianapolis International Airport waiting to board a plane.
Slaughter’s interview was followed by Justice Mark Massa, then Justices Steven David and Christopher Goff. Each justice spoke with the commission for about 15 minutes, concluding with Rush, who also sat with the JNC as an interviewee. She did not vote on her reappointment.
Each of the four justices was asked if they wanted to be considered for the chief justice position, and each said no. Instead, they offered their support for Rush’s reappointment as their leader.
“This is one of the many areas where our opinions are unanimous,” David, the longest serving justice, told the JNC.
Asked why Rush should retain her position, her colleagues offered different perspectives on her leadership. Slaughter praised the chief for being smart, personable and having “boundless energy,” while Massa said the court wants to continue with the progress it has made over the last five years under her leadership.
Similarly, Goff said Rush strikes a balance between being humble as a jurist but bold as an advocate for Hoosiers. David said he couldn’t think of a reason why Rush shouldn’t be reappointed.
Though her colleagues praised her leadership style, Rush demurred when asked about accomplishing her goals as the leader of the third branch of government. She’s not carrying out her vision, she said; she’s carrying out the vision of the court and its stakeholders.
“It’s the collective us,” she told the JNC.
During the interviews with the four justices, Rush asked each of them what they saw on the horizon for the court. Slaughter, as chair of the Coalition for Court Access, said he wants to build on the coalition’s “solid foundation” of ensuring all Hoosiers have equal access to the judicial system. He also said he thinks the court, under Rush’s leadership, is now in a place where it can more fully play its role as a policymaking body.
Likewise, Goff said he views the Supreme Court in two ways: as an administrative body and as a jurisprudential body. From the administrative perspective, Goff said he wants the high court to stay involved with its administrative duties to help judicial stakeholders carry out justice. As a former trial court judge, he said he remembers the benefit of the judiciary’s administrative arm in assisting with things such as securing grant funding, learning best practices and helping to organize communities by supporting initiatives such as problem-solving courts.
From the jurisprudential perspective, Goff said being a justice has helped him see the value of discretionary review. At the same time, he said, sometimes the justices “just need to do justice.”
From Massa’s perspective, the future of the court will largely depend on outside events and the kinds of cases the justices are asked to take. He said the question is not about the future of the Court, but about the courts, which the Supreme Court is tasked with supporting. He gave the example of last year’s Opioid Summit, which brought together stakeholders from each of Indiana’s 92 counties to discuss how to best respond to the ongoing drug scourge.
David offered high praise for the progress he’s seen the court make in recent years, pointing to the judiciary’s technology initiative and its ability to collaborate among levels of courts and branches of government. Looking to the future, he said he’d like to strengthen the judiciary’s civics education efforts and continue to build on its access-to-justice work. Access to justice doesn’t only mean serving pro se litigants, he said, but rather creating a system that is transparent and efficient.
Asked what she sees on the horizon for the Supreme Court, Rush gave a litany of issues she wants to pursue. There’s the Study Commission on the Future of the Indiana Bar Examination, which is reviewing declining bar passage rates across the Hoosier state. There’s the Coalition for Court Access, which Rush said addresses not only pro se litigants, but also litigants such as homeless veterans facing civil legal problems.
Relatedly, Rush said she’s been observing a “housing crisis.” Last month she visited a housing court and saw 100 evictions in just one morning, with no legal representation in any of the cases. And then there’s the opioid crisis, which has forced courts to reevaluate how they handle offenders’ addictions and mental illnesses.
“That’s a sampling,” Rush said of the issues facing the judiciary.
Asked what she would like to improve on, the chief said she thinks the addiction crisis unnecessarily caught the judiciary flat-footed. Before the opioid crisis there was a crack cocaine crisis, she said, but courts did not transfer that experience to the current drug issues.
That example generally underscores one area she’d like to improve: timely reforms for social issues. The judiciary did not put together its response to the opioid crisis fast enough, she said, and she doesn’t want to be caught flat-footed again.
Another area Rush said she wants to explore is online dispute resolution. She also sees room for improvement in civil case processing and reducing the traumatization of children in court.
As Rush’s interview concluded, the JNC thanked her for her five years of service as chief so far, noting she has an incredible schedule that keeps her constantly busy. Media were asked to leave the room while the JNC deliberated on her reappointment but were invited back in about 10 minutes later for the unanimous vote in Rush’s favor.
After the vote, the reappointed chief received a standing ovation. She thanked the commission, then transitioned back into her role as chief to begin the next piece of business.
“I’m honored to be appointed as Indiana’s Chief Justice once again,” Rush said in a statement after the JNC meeting. “I intend to continue working to put the people of Indiana at the center of everything courts do to resolve disputes. Our judges, clerks, court staff, and lawyers are committed to a service-oriented approach through numerous programs and initiatives that make the judiciary fair, efficient, and effective.”
For more on Rush’s reappointment, see the Sept. 4 issue of Indiana Lawyer.