When reflecting on why he wanted to go to law school, Parke Circuit Judge Sam Swaim said he was initially interested in joining the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“I wanted to get into the FBI, and one of the ways to get into the FBI was through law school, to be a lawyer or to have a law degree,” Swaim said.
Swaim would later change his mind about the FBI after finding out that the bureau tends to send people wherever they’re needed. But he was already committed to going to law school at that point, so he stuck with it.
A graduate of Anderson University and what is now known as the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Swaim was admitted to the Indiana bar in 1994.
He was elected judge 10 years later and has stayed on the bench ever since.
Swaim is the latest Indiana trial court judge to be featured in Indiana Lawyer’s Spotlight series that profiles jurists in more rural counties. Here is what he had to say about life on and off the bench.
What is something that surprised you about being a judge?
When I was elected as judge and before I took the bench, I went to a lot of the surrounding counties and observed proceedings and how different judges did proceedings through their cases. I was a lawyer for 10 years before I was a judge, and I didn’t particularly enjoy all aspects of being a lawyer in that if I disagreed with my client, I always had a difficult time advocating for their position. So it was refreshing when I started as a judge that I didn’t have to do that; I didn’t have to spin a case to inform whatever narrative my client wanted to present. I felt like I could go straight to the facts and apply the laws to the facts. So that was refreshing.
What was your first job outside of law school?
I grew up in Parke County; in fact, my ancestors have been here a long time. When I decided that the FBI wasn’t something I wanted to do, I law clerked for a couple of years in downtown (Indianapolis) and decided I didn’t really want to do that either, mainly because of the commuting. Parke County is pretty rural — from my house to here (the courthouse), I don’t have any stoplights or anything like that — so I decided I wanted to come back to Parke County. I connected with a law firm here in Rockville and I worked with them the whole 10 years. That was my one and only job between the time I graduated from law school until I was elected as judge, and it was just a general private practice.
What do you think you’d be doing if you hadn’t gone to law school?
I would probably be a history teacher. I enjoy history quite a bit; particularly when I was in high school and college, I enjoyed history. I also enjoy the outdoors and hiking quite a bit. I guess I would be a history teacher during the school year and maybe working at a park or something like that during the summer.
What is something you have learned about yourself since becoming a judge?
I learned that I can be resilient; I’ve always known that I’ve had a fair amount of fortitude and perseverance. I’m the only judge in my county, so when things don’t turn out the way that you would hope they would, if you make a ruling and your ruling doesn’t go as planned — or, for instance, I have a drug court, and if somebody relapses or gets rearrested after they graduate — that can be very frustrating. It’s tempting to kind of harden your heart. So I think I’ve learned resilience and the fact that I can be resilient and stay grounded to the people that are healthy for me and activities that are healthy for me, and I try to keep an open mind and remain compassionate.
Do you have a favorite memory of your time being a judge?
Being elected was a great memory. It was a very close election. I can’t say that I have one favorite memory — I have some favorite memories. But being elected — my mom was still living at that time, and her being in here in the courtroom. It was a very close election. I had a primary opponent and a general opponent. I haven’t had any opponents since I was originally elected.
But once I took the bench, there’s been a few different things. Like I said, I have a drug court, so I’ve had a lot of good memories with drug court proceedings. I had a very difficult guardianship with some Amish children where their parents died in a car wreck and some of their siblings, and there was a contested guardianship over who would be their guardians. The hearing itself was emotional. It was a difficult hearing — both sides were great people, presented a great case, and it was a difficult decision. But years later the children had stopped by the office just to kind of catch up with me and (say) how much they appreciated the amount of thought and the decision that I made, and so that was nice. There’s a lot of good memories.
What are some of your hobbies?
I’m a very avid hiker and I read a lot. I’ve hiked all over the United States. I have a group of friends that I hike with. We’ve been to Montana, Tennessee, Minnesota, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan, Colorado. The Rockies and the Smokies are some of my favorite hiking locations.
What is something you would change about the legal field if you could?
I would like to see a statewide minimum salary for court reporters. I think that a lot of folks don’t understand just how much professionalism goes into being a court reporter. We’re a very poor county, and the poor counties have to compete with the urban counties for court reporters, and staff in general. So it would be nice if there were a minimum. It’s similar to probation officers; probation officers have a minimum salary.•