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The Journal Gazette

Monday, March 20, 2017 10:01 pm

Judgment awaits

Indiana’s Judicial Nominating Commission is on the hunt again for a state Supreme Court justice. With Justice Robert Rucker’s impending retirement, the court will see its fifth new member in seven years – preferably a jurist who will lend diversity to the state’s highest panel.

The five-member court now has four men and one woman, Chief Justice Loretta Rush. Rucker is the only African-American.

The seven-member Judicial Nominating Commission, which includes Fort Wayne attorney John Feighner, is interviewing candidates for the court this week. It will forward three names to Gov. Eric Holcomb, who will make the final selection. 

The 20 candidates include 14 men and six women. There are two African-American candidates.

Rush told The Journal Gazette’s Niki Kelly there can be advantages to the fresh perspective offered by a new jurist, but she also said she will miss the life experience Rucker brought to the court.

"I’ve had the benefit of having Justice Rucker’s voice in my head," Rush said. "I think having the diversity of voices is key. There’s all kinds of diversity. There is diversity in race. There’s diversity in practice background. There’s locational diversity."

Rucker, 70, brought both racial and locational diversity to the court. He was the first African-American judge appointed to the Indiana Court of Appeals and the second African-American appointed to the Supreme Court. A Lake County native, he graduated from Gary’s storied Roosevelt High School. He was a deputy prosecutor in Lake County for 15 years and city attorney for Gary before becoming a judge. 

Speaking at his high school earlier this month, Rucker told students he began working at age 11 selling fruits and vegetables out of the back of a truck. The job nurtured the work ethic required to sit on the bench of the state’s highest court, he said.

"There’s no such thing as a 9-to-5 day," Rucker said. "As my grandmother would say, ‘We work from can to can’t, which means we work from the time you can see in the morning to when you can’t see at night.’ ’’

Those life experiences are important in jurisprudence, as Rush noted, and Indiana can do better to ensure its courts include them. A 2016 study by the American Constitution Society ranked the state 33rd worst for combined gender and race/ethnicity representation in state courts. 

"Our laws are premised in part on the idea that our courts will be staffed by judges who can understand the circumstances of the communities which they serve," wrote authors Tracey E. George and Albert H. Yoon. "Our judicial system depends on the general public’s faith in its legitimacy. Both of these foundational principles require a bench that is representative of the people whom the courts serve."

The nominating commission and the governor have an opportunity to strengthen the public’s faith in its judicial system with an appointment expanding gender and/or racial diversity on the Supreme Court.