Frank Sullivan’s unexpected resignation from the Indiana Supreme Court did more than add to the swift and surprising change in the court’s makeup. Sullivan is not only one of the best legal minds in the state, but he has also been at the forefront of upgrading court technology to make the judicial system more efficient and more accessible to the public.
Because Sullivan is the third justice to announce his resignation in less than two years, his exit later this year will result in a new majority on the five-member court. Though Hoosiers will probably not see dramatic change – the court has a refreshing reputation of being only minimally motivated by politics and ideology – three new justices will undoubtedly make their own unique mark on the state’s judicial system. Some of their rulings will affect all Hosiers.
Though he was state budget director for Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh, who later appointed him to the court, Sullivan did not automatically take the liberal side of an argument, as some Democratic appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court have. Sullivan instead had a reputation for independence, as well as for asking tough, penetrating questions of the lawyers who appeared before the court.
For example, Sullivan joined the four other justices in unanimously ruling that Democrat Vop Osili would not be awarded the secretary of state’s position in the wake of Charlie White’s legal troubles, a decision that had the effect of helping Republicans. Sullivan took a conservative position in a 3-2 ruling in 2002 that upheld drug testing of high school students who participate in extracurricular activities.
And in a 2003 abortion ruling that could be considered part liberal, part conservative, Sullivan wrote a decision that concluded Medicaid was not required to pay for all abortions that are medically necessary but must pay for abortions in pregnancies that create a serious risk of substantial impairment of the woman – a subtle difference. That decision, particularly, showed Sullivan’s ability to look past ideology to the law’s nuances.
Sullivan was also a driving force behind the state’s Odyssey court records system, which helps counties be more efficient by computerizing court records and gives citizens the ability to look up court cases online.
His retirement announcement was the most surprising of the three relatively recent court departures. Indeed, if Sullivan made any news this spring, it seemed more likely that he would be named chief justice after Randall Shepard retired.
At 62, Sullivan could have multiplied his salary by going into private practice.
Instead, he will become a law professor at Indiana University’s law school in Indianapolis.
His departure should leave Gov. Mitch Daniels with no excuses to finally appoint a woman to the court, one of just two in the nation with no female justice.
Whomever Daniels appoints would do well by striving to meet the standard of inquiry and independence that Sullivan set.