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Wednesday, July 02, 2014
Ind. Courts - A Day in Lake County for Judicial Nominating Commission Interviews
Commentary by Joel Schumm, professor at Indiana University's Robert H. McKinney School of Law
After observing scores of interviews for Indiana Supreme Court justices before the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) in 2010 and 2012 and co-teaching a seminar on judicial selection with Judge Tim Oakes, I was interested in seeing the commission process for a superior court vacancy. Fortunately, the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission met yesterday and is meeting again today to fill the vacancy in Civil Room 4, so I headed to Crown Point for the day.*
Some Key Differences
Although there are many similarities in the Lake County and Indiana JNC processes, a few differences stood out.
- The Indiana JNC has seven members (three lawyers, three laypeople, and the Chief Justice) while the Lake County Nominating Commission has nine (four lawyers, four laypeople and Justice Rucker, the Chief Justice’s designee). Despite the larger commission, the Lake County setting seemed a bit more intimate. It was clear the lawyer members (and some lay members) knew most applicants well. With rare exception of applicants who gave very long opening statements, members had plenty of time to ask multiple questions on a wide range of subjects in the 20-25 minute interviews.
- The applications are submitted in hard copy to Rich Wolters, the secretary of the Commission, and distributed to the members of the Commission along with any reference letters received. The applications are not electronically submitted or posted on a website like the Indiana JNC has done for supreme court vacancies since 2010.
- The Lake County Bar Association does a survey of members who assess applicants with whose work they are familiar. Several questions are posed, and the results are reported in three broad categories: competence, temperament, and character—with an overall score that is separate from an average of three. The scoring system is 9 or 10 for exceptionally well qualified, 7 or 8 for well qualified, 5 or 6 for qualified, 3 or 4 for less than qualified, and 1 or 2 for not qualified. The scores ranged from almost 8.0 for Magistrate Pagano to three applicants in the 4.0 to 5.0 range. No similar survey (of state bar members, appellate lawyers, etc.) is done by the Indiana JNC.
- No media appeared to be present for the interviews on Tuesday, although I was told that both local papers were there throughout the process to fill the vacancy in criminal court. Media coverage of the Indiana JNC seemed highest during the 2010 vacancy and has otherwise been sporadic.
- The Lake County process is a single round, while the Indiana JNC does two rounds of interviews, usually narrowing the field to 5-10 applicants for the second round. References are checked between the two rounds.
- Perhaps most surprising (and welcome in my view), later this afternoon the Lake County JNC will publicly deliberate and vote on a list of names to send to the Governor. The Indiana JNC meets in private to deliberate and then does a public “vote,” in which a list of names is moved, seconded, and (usually) approved by all members.
The questions covered a wide range of topics. The lay members, however, seemed to ask far fewer questions than the lawyer members. Lay members asked roughly the same number of questions as lawyer members in most Indiana JNC interviews, while the percentage in Lake County seemed more like 75/25 or even 80/20. Tom Dabertin was the most active lay member questioner and frequently asked about the importance of management skills for a trial judges while noting that some have no employee handbook and one thought the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA) did not apply to employees. Other common questions touched on:
- electronic filing, which currently covers only a few cases—mostly foreclosures—in Room 4. Most applicants spoke in favor of expansion and the benefits of e-filing.
- the challenges of pro se litigants, on which applicants fell at various points on a spectrum from entirely equal treatment with lawyers to quite a bit of assistance and extra time. A magistrate’s response that she applies the same rules while taking some time to explain things a bit differently struck me as the proper balance.
- time limits for voir dire, opening statements, closing arguments, etc. Many applicants said limits were not necessary because lawyers who talk too long only hurt their own case. Others spoke in favor of limits, usually variable based on the complexity of a case or number of litigants. One suggested time limits needed to be imposed on all hearings and proceedings.
High Points, Low Points, and a Few Recommendations
The quality of the interview responses ranged widely, but I thought the applicants with judicial experience were generally the best at answering questions directly and succinctly while demonstrating a nuanced and thoughtful understanding of the functioning of Room 4 and the proper role for the new judge. Magistrates Raduenz and Pagano were especially strong.
Some of the other interviews were disappointing, especially when applicants showed little thought in answering the very predictable opening question from Justice Rucker about why they would like to be a judge in Room 4.
A few (unsolicited) recommendations for applicants:
- The 20-25 minute interview should be a dialogue—not a monologue. I don’t know if it is the result of nerves or insecurity, but applicants who filibuster the opening question deprive the commission members an opportunity to ask questions and engage in a dialogue on the topics of interest to them. Twenty seconds is too short; ten or fifteen minutes is far too long for an opening statement. I think two or three minutes is sufficient to strike a theme, make some point, and hopefully create a positive first impression. Rambling for ten or fifteen minutes is unlikely to accomplish any of these things.
- The Commission wants the best person for the citizens of Lake County and Room 4—not the person whose family or other obligations means the position is a good fit for them personally. Applicants may certainly seek a judgeship because they think it will allow a work schedule more conducive to family and other commitments, but ending an interview by emphasizing those obligations and how the job would be good for the applicant is not likely to generate support.
- Spending an hour in a mock interview with friends, colleagues, or others familiar with the process could have improved some interviews markedly. The questions were mostly predictable and entirely appropriate for the future judge of Room 4. Interviews should be mooted with lawyers or others who will be brutally candid, but any feedback will be helpful in giving answers that are direct and succinct, demonstrating knowledge of, interest in, and qualifications for the job with the appropriate balance of humility and self-promotion.
*Judge Oakes made the trek with me. The views expressed in this post are mine alone.
Members of the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission interviewing Andrew Kraemer on July 1, 2014