INDIANAPOLIS (WANE) – Three law practitioners from Fort Wayne were among the 29 candidates who interviewed to fill the open seat on the Indiana Supreme Court. Justice Brent E. Dickson will retire April 29 after 30 years as a judicial branch leader.
The Judicial Nominating Commission began three days of interviews of all the applicants on Wednesday.
Two judges and an attorney from Fort Wayne have applied for the job.
Frances Gull, administrative judge in Allen Superior Court’s Criminal Division, Allen Circuit Court Judge Thomas J. Felts, and Thomas Yoder, a partner at Barrett McNagny law firm, have applied for the seat on the state’s high court.
Yoder and Felts interviewed with the Judicial Nominating Commission on Wednesday. Gull interviewed Thursday.
Meet Fran Gull:
Gull has been on the bench since 1999. As administrative judge of Allen Superior Court’s Criminal Division, she oversees the day-to-day operations of all six criminal courts. She is also a former Chief Deputy Prosecutor.
Gull was honored with the National Center for State Courts’ 2015 G. Thomas Munsterman Award for Jury Innovation for her work in spearheading the decade-long electronic upgrade of the Allen County’s Superior Court jury management system, mJuror.
In her interview with the Judicial Nominating Commission, Judge Gull reiterated her strong belief in the power of the jury. Describing her judicial philosophy, Gull said she’s a rules follower and that applies to when she’s on the bench as she examines just the case in front of her.
When asked to describe herself in one word, she was quick to respond with “innovative.”
“We have limited resources and everyone has limited resources and I think you need to be able to think outside the box on how are we going to serve the public, how are we going to get resources and how are we going to provide services. So, innovation is key,” Gull said.
One example of that is what she calls “fishbowl moments,” an incentive program for people in drug court.
“We all know it’s easy to punish people. We’ve all seen the research that rewarding people for good behavior seems to be a more positive reinforcement and our folks often tell us it’s not very often they get an ‘attaboy’ or an ‘attagirl’ from a judge for something they should be doing,” Gull said.
Gull said she applied for the opening on the state’s high court because she’s best for the job.
“I’m innovative. I think I can speak for all the citizens of Indiana. I think I have the legal acumen and legal chops to do what needs to be done. I’m collegial and I can collaborate with my fellow colleagues to get things done,” Gull said.
Meet Thomas Felts:
Felts was elected Circuit Court judge in 2002. He served as a Circuit Court magistrate for 12 years prior.
In his interview Wednesday, Felts talked about how a good judge is fair and a good listener and how he as a judge also doesn’t preach from the bench. Felts said his years as a trial court judge make him a good candidate because he’s dealt with many facets of the law including criminal, civil and family law.
“I’ve done all kinds of bench trials and jury trials and had a lot of experience working with the legislature being an ambassador for the court. You have to be a good public servant [as a Justice] and I have a good public service record,” Felts said.
One of the questions Chief Justice Loretta Rush asked Felts was about his 1,000 hours volunteering with the Indiana State Bar Association’s Leadership Development Academy. Felts was also asked if he thought there should be a mandatory pro bono requirement for attorneys.
“The best way to address pro bono issues is to incentivize lawyers to look deeper within themselves and recognize the benefits of giving back to their community and to their profession. That reward you get when someone who may not have an attorney except for you stepping forward and it’s rewarding,” Felts said.
Meet Thomas Yoder:
Yoder has nearly four decades of experience practicing law and is a past president of the Indiana State Bar Association.
As president of the bar, Yoder traveled the state as a spokesperson representing the 15,000 lawyers in Indiana.
Yoder will turn 64 years old in a few months, and he was asked if his age was a positive or negative. The mandatory retirement age from the court is 75. He said his age is a benefit.
“Everyone on the court is about the same age and when they start hitting 75, some governor will get to pack the court. Am a short timer? Yeah, if you consider a decade a short time. Will I bring some fun to this court? Oh yeah,” he said.
He added his background in business law would bring good diversity to the court.
“I have seen everything there is to see in the commercial and business context and frankly, I think the Indiana Supreme Court has never been strong in those areas. I think I bring a perspective to the court that, really, they don’t have right now,” Yoder said.
Yoder also talked about how a justice’s job is about more than judging and it doesn’t end when you take the robe off.
“Justices are the leaders of the rule of law in the State of Indiana and I feel it’s their responsibility to get out there and let people know that and to champion the rule of law and to champion lawyers,” he said.
Nine of the 29 interviews were conducted Wednesday. They will continue Thursday and Friday.
The seven-member Judicial Nominating Commission is charged with recruiting and selecting candidates for the vacancy on the state’s highest court. It’s led by Chief Justice Loretta Rush. It will review applications, consider applicants’ legal education, writings, reputation in the practice of law, and other pertinent information.
After the interviews this week, the commission will select finalists who will be asked back for a second round of interviews March 3-4. The commission will then publicly vote on three final candidates to recommend to Gov. Mike Pence, who has 60 days to select the next justice.
The person selected by Pence will be the 109th justice and will join four others on the bench:
- Chief Justice Loretta H. Rush (108) [November 7, 2012 -]
- Justice Robert D. Rucker (105) [November 19, 1999 -]
- Justice Steven H. David (106) [October 18, 2010 -]
- Justice Mark S. Massa (107) [April 2, 2012 -]
The last time an Indiana Supreme Court justice was from Fort Wayne was in 1949.