Growing up a block away from the Spencer County Courthouse, now-Judge Jon Dartt used to mow grass for some of the local lawyer families.
“I can actually look out the window in my office from my desk and see my childhood home,” Dartt said.
Dartt graduated from Indiana University-Bloomington in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and biology. He was considering either law school or teaching as a next step, and he ultimately ended up graduating from what is now the Indiana University Maurer School of Law in 1991.
Dartt and his wife, Angie, are both attorneys, and they decided to return home to Spencer County in 1995 to open a law office and raise their family.
He was elected prosecuting attorney in 1998 and served in that role for a decade before deciding to run for judge. He won election to the Spencer Circuit Court in 2008 and has remained there since.
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Dartt said he likes to use his story to inspire other kids in the county and show them that they can accomplish things — and move back home to do it.
Dartt is the latest Indiana trial 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 made you decide to pursue a career in law?
My dad really pushed upon me, “Blaze your own trail. Don’t be a teacher because I’m a teacher.” I always had an interest in the law, and I think part of that was growing up so close to the courthouse when I was younger; I used to come over and just walk through and see what was going on. And then I knew some of the local attorneys, and as I said, I mowed grass with their families. I think I always had that interest — I love to talk, I love to argue, and the law did seem like a fitting occupation that would fit my skills.
What was your first job out of law school?
My first job outside of law school was as a law clerk at the Indiana Court of Appeals. I did that for a year and enjoyed that. I got to read about and help the judge decide cases from all over the state, so it was a great immersion into the law and just a great way to see the way different attorneys practice and the way different judges ran their courts. Then after that, I went and practiced in Indianapolis for about three years before moving home.
What was your practice area?
It was mostly litigation. And again, I think that fit my personality. I liked being in the courtroom, I liked speaking, I liked arguing, and so I primarily worked in the litigation area whenever I was in private practice. And then when my wife and I moved back to Spencer County, it’s a small county, so we practiced every area of law; it was a general practice.
What is something that has surprised you about being a judge?
I think being a judge in a rural county, we don’t have a lot of financial resources to do things with, so we have to do more with less. But I think we have the greatest resource, which is our people, and they’re awesome. And so what we don’t have in terms of programming on a national or statewide level, we have worked very hard to put things together locally. I’m blessed to have an excellent referee and a great staff and then just a caring group of community partners that help us get things done. That’s been one of my biggest surprises is, in a rural county, a lot of times there’s not as many treatment options or not as many counseling options as there would be in a bigger city, and so we have to come up with unique alternatives to get that done and local alternatives to get that done.
What is something you have learned about yourself since becoming a judge?
My dad was a schoolteacher, and he went on to become a principal and a superintendent, so education has always been something that was really pushed in my household growing up, and I think it rubbed off on me. I’ve learned in the justice system that children are a driving force for me, and one thing I’ve learned about myself is I want to fix everything that’s wrong or broken — but I’ve also learned that I cannot do that. So instead of getting frustrated or overwhelmed, I concentrate on the things I can do right now, and then I hope over time the rest will come together, as well. I like the saying, “None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something.” I’ve learned patience, to take one case and one day at a time, to make a positive change where we all can. So I guess I would sum it up by saying I have learned that I needed more patience, and I believe I have done a lot better job of getting more patience over the years with experience.
What is a favorite memory of being judge?
There are so many being in a rural county. We know our people, and we get to see firsthand the changes they make after going through the court system, and we get to see the results of our actions and a positive difference that we helped make for many in our community. So that is very rewarding. There are so many cases — I hate to single out just one, but just seeing people break cycles of addiction, seeing families get their kids back by overcoming some issues that they have in their individual families, seeing people come back from prison and changing and never getting in trouble again, all those types of things make it very rewarding to be a judge. I’m a little biased as far as small county judges, but I think because we know most of the people in our community, we really see firsthand those differences, and many of those differences are not just for this year — they are for generations to come once they change, and it’s a big deal to see. I’ve been prosecutor and then judge now for 15 years, and I’m seeing the next generation coming through and the changes that occurred positively in the past and how it’s changed their families in the future. That makes it very rewarding, so that’s probably one of my favorite memories, just seeing the progression.
What do you think are some of the challenges rural counties are facing in the legal field?
I touched on it a little bit earlier: The lack of resources in rural counties is a big deal. When individuals are arrested, we want to see if there are treatment options that we can get them into, things of that nature, and in a lot of rural counties, our options are very much more limited than they would be in a bigger city.
When you’re not on the bench, what are some of your hobbies?
My wife and I love to go antiquing and flea marketing on the weekends, and we usually take my mom, who loves it, as well. I also love reading, walking, hiking and helping out in my community. I volunteer on several community organizations and boards, and I’m a deacon at my church, where I enjoy serving others and teaching Bible study. I told you that I went to IU for seven years; I love all things IU, especially games and being on campus.•