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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ind. Courts - "Supreme Court observers predict ‘wide open’ process of picking of next chief"

Maureen Hayden of the CNHI Statehouse Bureau reported in a long story in the Kokomo Tribune on July 29th:

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson surprised observers in June when he decided to step down after a brief tenure in the leadership post.

Another surprise may be in store when his replacement is named.

A seven-member panel of lawyers and lay people will meet at the Statehouse on Aug. 6 to select the court’s next leader. Unlike Dickson’s selection two years ago, when other justices unanimously supported their long-serving colleague, there may be a four-way contest for his successor.

The panel’s decision will come after public sessions in which each justice has 20 minutes to talk about the qualities they think are important in the chief’s job — and, if they want, to make a pitch for themselves.

The sole woman on the bench, Justice Loretta Rush, may be the favorite, but there are no safe bets.

“It’s probably never been as wide open a process as it’s going be this time,” said former Justice Frank Sullivan, who retired from the bench in 2012.

Joel Schumm, an Indiana University law professor who writes about the court for the Indiana Law Blog, concurs.

The court has only had four chiefs since 1970, when Indiana switched from elections for Supreme Court to a merit system for selecting them. Candidates for the Supreme Court are vetted by a commission composed of three members appointed by the governor, three lawyers elected by fellow lawyers, and the sitting chief justice, who chairs the commission.

While the governor has final say over justice appointments, picking from three candidates selected by the commission, it’s the commission that decides who is chief justice.

“The commission will have to make a choice among some very accomplished people,” said Schumm.

The job is important. In addition to overseeing the court’s caseload, the chief sets priorities for the state’s justice system and conveys expectations for the legal profession.

It’s been a long time since there’s been a true contest for the spot.

Dickson, 73, who will return to his prior position as associate justice, saw his role as temporary when his fellow justices persuaded him to take the job two years ago. He replaced former Chief Justice Randall Shepard, the state's top judge for 25 years and the nation’s longest serving judge when he retired in 2012.

Shepard’s elevation in 1978 came with some controversy. A fellow justice coveting the position publicly accused him of drug and alcohol abuse, allegations that were unfounded but embarrassing to Shepard and the court.

Dickson has said publicly it’s “not likely” that the other justices will agree among themselves who should be their new leader, but no one expects a contentious selection.

Dickson has said any of the justices are capable of leading the court.

The committee’s choices include three justices with significant legal careers but no more than four years of experience on the Supreme Court.

Justice Steven David, of Lebanon, had a 25-year military career and spent 15 years as a trial court judge before former Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed him to the court in 2010. Justice Mark Massa, a former federal prosecutor who was Daniels’ general counsel, was appointed in 2012 by his former boss.

Rush, who worked with Dickson at the same law firm 30 years ago and was his protégé while there, spent 14 years as a juvenile court judge in Lafayette before joining the Supreme Court in 2012. She also was appointed by Daniels.

All three — David, Massa and Rush — are in their 50s and potentially could replicate Shepard’s long tenure.

Justice Robert Rucker, the only African-American member of the court, is seen as a less likely pick because of his age and party affiliation. At 67, he’d be limited to eight years as chief justice if selected. He is the only justice appointed by a Democrat, Gov. Frank O’Bannon, in 1999.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on July 31, 2014 10:39 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts