Commentary: The human beings beneath the robes

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana Supreme Court Justices have first names.

And they even use them with each other.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

That’s one thing I learn from talking with Indiana Supreme Column by John KrullCourt Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Supreme Court Justice Brent Dickson. We’re doing a radio show on the state’s highest court.

We’d started out talking about the Supreme Court’s history – its beginnings as a three-person bench and the long years in which it served almost as a glorified (and overworked) automatic appeals court before evolving into what it is now, Indiana’s primary interpreter of fundamental state law.

While talking about the court’s history is interesting, the conversation becomes still more intriguing when Rush and Dickson open a window and let us take a peek at the way the justices work with each other and the law.

Dickson, who will retire at the end of this month after serving on the high bench for more than 30 years, says the way the justices conduct their weekly conferences is instructive. The justices sit at a round table with the most recently appointed member of the court to the chief justice’s left. That new justice is the one who starts the discussion of the issue at hand.

Dickson says that is deliberate. It’s designed to be a way to prod the court to consider new voices and resist calcification.

The thought of these five human beings sitting at a table week after week sorting through matters that can mean life or death, hope or despair, success or failure for millions of their fellow citizens fascinates me. We know what the Supreme Court means to the state of Indiana.

What I want to find out is how it affects the people who have to sit at that table – who have to make those decisions.

The courtroom for the Supreme Court, high ceiling and massive bench, is designed to intimidate and inspire respect for the majesty of the law. Similarly, the legal process is designed to foster and encourage formality.

I say to Rush that, while we’re talking, she and Dickson have been painstaking in referring to each other and their fellow members of the high court in formal terms – Justice This and Justice That.

When they are alone, do they ever let down their guards a bit and refer to each other by first names.

“Yes,” Rush says, explaining that she likes things “informal” when the justices are behind closed doors.

She and Dickson both explain it is important – no, essential – for the justices to respect and trust each other. They have to be able to listen to – and hear – each other. The nature of the work demands that they collaborate by challenging and refining each other’s thoughts and opinions.

When he steps down April 29, Dickson will have served the second-longest tenure on the Supreme Court in Indiana history. I ask him if there are any decisions he would like to revisit.

Not really, he says.

To survive under the workload, he says, he had to learn to focus on the issue at hand, make his decision and then close the book on it and move on to the next case.

I ask Rush if she revisits old rulings and wonders if she made the right decision – or just if she wishes she could tweak an opinion a little more.

The chief justice chuckles.

“All the time,” she says.

This is Indiana’s bicentennial year. In the state’s 200-year history, slightly more than 100 human beings have sat on the Supreme Court, shaping both the law and the lives of millions of Hoosiers.

Earlier in the conversation, Rush noted that the portraits of all but a couple of Indiana’s 100-plus Supreme Court justices surround the current stewards of the state’s highest bench as they go about their jobs, a visible and constant reminder of the seriousness and the sanctity of the court’s work.

I ask Rush and Dickson what it is like to be part of that club – to bear that trust.

Each one answers in the same way, with a single word, delivered in a soft, almost hushed, voice.

“Humbling.”

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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