Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Interview with Supreme Court Justices Editors

Linda Gugin, emeriti professor of political science at Indiana University Southeast, and James E. St. Clair, professor of journalism at IU Southeast, have worked together on numerous books, including a biographies of Sherman Minton and Fred Vinson. Their newest project is the Indiana Historical Society Press book Justices of the Indiana Supreme Court. Gugin and St. Clair took time to answer questions about the book, which includes profiles of the one woman and 105 men who have served on the Indiana Supreme Court.

What prompted you to do a book on all the judges/justices of the Indiana Supreme Court?

After we finished editing the book The Governors of Indiana, we were looking for a new project. We considered doing a book on the justices of the Indiana Supreme Court but then discovered that a somewhat similar work had been published by the Court in the seventies. So we considered a book on U.S. Senators.

At the annual author fair at the Indiana Historical Society in December 2006, Chief Justice Randall Shepard, who wrote an essay in the governors book, asked us what our next project was. He told us he was very interested in having a book on the justices of the Supreme Court. And we confirmed that we could be very interested in editing such a book. He followed up with an email to us and in May of 2007 we met with the Chief Justice and his assistant Elizabeth Osborn to discuss the book. The Chief Justice pledged substantial financial support for the book and assistance in selecting authors.

How did you go about recruiting authors?

Chief Justice Shepard and Elizabeth Osborn were very helpful in our efforts to recruit authors. They identified authors for almost every justice based on their geographic closeness to the subject’s home region or because he or she previously wrote about the justice. The Chief Justice sent a letter in December 2007 to the tentatively identified authors asking their participation in the project. We followed up with letters in January 2008 proposing a subject or subjects for each author and asking them to confirm their willingness to contribute one or more essays.

About 70 percent of the people on the original list that the Chief Justice proposed agreed to participate. We recruited the remaining authors in a variety of ways, including asking colleagues at IU Southeast, inviting some authors who had contributed to the governors book, asking authors who could not participate to recommend someone else, and soliciting suggestions from logical sources in the same home region as the subject. In a few cases people with a strong interest in the subject contacted us to express their interest.

What surprised you most about the book?

LINDA: I was surprised at the strong impact of partisanship on the fates of the justices’ tenure in office and on the opinions they wrote. From 1852, until judicial reform was passed in 1970, justices ran for the office under partisan labels. The electoral success or failure of judicial candidates often depended on the fate of their party. If an election occurred in a banner year for the Republicans it meant that Republican candidates would win and Democratic candidates would lose. Many well qualified incumbent justices lost their seats on the Court because of the standing of their party, and some lesser qualified candidates gained seats for the same reason. Not surprisingly, the partisanship of elections often carried over into their decisions, particularly in cases that involved the powers of the governor or elections.

JIM: Several aspects of the formative years of the 19th century judges I found of particular interest, especially how so many of them, through sheer determination and hard work, rose from very humble beginnings to positions of prominence. The process of becoming lawyers during the early years of statehood was also intriguing. For many, the path to the legal profession came not through attending law schools but rather reading law with an attorney or judge in their community.

One judge, Alvin Hovey, studied law using the same volume of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law that Abraham Lincoln had used years earlier when he was preparing to enter the profession. It was also of great interest to read some of the issues that came before the Court early in its history, most likely not the kind of cases justices in later years had to decide. For example, the learned judges of yesteryear were asked to pass judgment on cases that involved stealing hogs, a father’s claim of seduction against the suitor of his unwed, adult daughter, and the legality of an establishment charging people to play billiards.

Do you have a favorite justice?

LINDA: There are so many justices from which to choose that it is hard to come up with one favorite. However James A. Emmert, the seventy-ninth justice, is one who comes to mind. He served from 1947 until 1959. He was one of the most colorful justices and a favorite of the Indianapolis press corps. Instead of commuting to his home in Shelbyville he slept in his office on a couch. Those who arrived early at the Statehouse would occasionally see him walking in an upper hallway in his bathrobe. He would also invite some of his newspaper buddies to his office for an afternoon “cup of tea,” which was bourbon and branch water served in china cups.

Emmert had a long running battle over the Court’s budget with a state legislator, the owner of several peony farms, who persuaded the legislature to replace the zinnia with the peony as the Indiana State Flower. Emmert refused to call the legislator by his name and instead referred to him as “that peony growing b-st-d.” Aside from his flamboyant personality, he was known for his intellect and integrity and for several of his opinions that protected individual rights.

There are many humorous stories in the book that will delight readers. One of my favorites is about a prominent New Albany lawyer who admitted he was a “pretty bad kid” growing up. When he was in high school, he stole a set of golf clubs from a fancy car he saw with the trunk open. He proceeded to hit all of the balls out if it and then tried to sell it. He was caught and put in jail. When he was released he was told that the clubs belonged to Dixon Prentice, then a prominent New Albany lawyer, and advised that he should go an apologize to him. Prentice rather than castigating him gave him fifty cents and told him to go get a haircut and not to “do this anymore.” Several years later, when the attorney was at the height of his profession, he was preparing for an oral argument before the Court. He looked up and saw Justice Prentice walk in with the other justices. The lawyer said his hands starting shaking” but that Prentice never brought it up or said anything to him about the incident. However, the lawyer said, “As I recall I lost that case.”

JIM: I especially enjoyed researching and writing about the life and career of Curtis Roll, who served on the Court for two six-year terms, from 1931 to 1943. He declined the opportunity to seek a third term and instead returned to private practice, not as a big bucks corporate attorney but as a small-town counselor handling such grassroots matters for clients as zoning changes, annexation, and board of health rulings. If he saw this work as any less important or less satisfying than his deliberations on the bench, he never expressed it as far I know. I was also impressed that he kept active until the end. In fact, on the evening he collapsed and died, Roll had been speaking during a business meeting at this longtime church.

I have vivid memories of other Supreme Court judges, two in particular because of how tragic their lives ended. Stephen Stevens, the state’s fifth Supreme Court judge, achieved great fame and wealth but a failed investment in a railroad venture not only cost him his fortune but also his sanity. He ended up a pauper in a state mental hospital, a fate somewhat softened by the kind gesture of fellow lawyers who, after learning he had little to wear, collected money to buy him a new suit. John Gillett, esteemed educator, scholar, and jurist, hanged himself after a series of calamities, including the death of his wife, his own failing health, and the decline of his beloved law school. Judge Timothy Howard penned a line to the president of Notre Dame when he sought to return to the faculty that I am especially fond of and reminds me that we were not always a “greed is good” society. As to his salary, Howard wrote, “You would not wish me to have too little & I should not want to have too much.”

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