Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses and civic leaders to talk shop about the latest developments in their industries and the habits that lead to success.
Sarah Evans Barker, 67, became the first female federal judge in Indiana after being appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Her ascent to the position was even more remarkable given that some 20 years earlier, she was floating through her courses at Indiana University “like a cork on the ocean” without any clue what she wanted to do after graduation (see video below).
She earned her law degree from the American University School of Law in Washington, D.C., and worked as a legislative assistant to Sen. Charles H. Percy and Congressman Gilbert Gude. She started her Indianapolis legal career as an assistant United States Attorney, and served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana before being appointed to the federal bench for the same district.
“I sort of knew the ropes,” Barker said. “There is a rule of thumb for judges that it takes about five years to get your stride. … That’s pretty accurate.
“I was learning about how to manage the work and how to write to all the audiences you have to write to—to the lawyers and the litigants, to the Seventh Circuit [Court of Appeals], to the general field of lawyers and academics, because you don’t want to have a decision that doesn’t resonate with the body of laws that you are trying to apply.”
In her 27 years on the bench, the Mishawaka native has ruled on a number of high-profile cases. In 1984, she overturned an Indianapolis ordinance banning pornographic materials on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment. In 2003, she mandated an end to overcrowding at the Marion County Jail. For several years during the early 2000s, she and U.S. Magistrate Judge Sue Shields resolved more than 800 cases related to alleged defects in Bridgestone/Firestone tires that were linked to hundreds of deaths and injuries.
Of greatest importance to Barker is her family, as evidenced by the dozens of personal photos and keepsakes that line the desks, bookcases and walls in her office. These include a hand-drawn Mother’s Day card from daughter Susan in 1985 that reads in careful calligraphy, “My mother is a pretty judge.” Framed nearby is a handwritten note from daughter Katie to then-President Reagan that Barker presented at a White House function—which was returned to Katie with a note from the Gipper. (Barker and her attorney husband, Kenneth Barker, have three grown children and several grandchildren.)
One doesn’t want to waste an audience with the perennially busy Barker, so “Leading Questions” is setting a new precedent with four videos in this edition.
In the videos below, Barker discusses a number of issues related to her time on the bench, including reversals from appeals courts (they sting a bit) and balancing family life with a legal career (it’s very difficult). At bottom, Barker addresses whether she would be a good fit for a Supreme Court appointment (not really), and how she’ll know when it’s time to step down (don't hold your breath).