A panel voted Tuesday to make longtime Justice Brent Dickson Indiana's first new chief justice in 25 years after other justices said he was suited to bring stability to the state's judicial system amid the most turnover the Supreme Court has seen in decades.
Dickson, 70, is the longest-serving current member of the five-member Supreme Court and has been the acting chief justice since Randall Shepard retired in March.
Three of the other four justices told the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission they supported Dickson taking over as chief justice. The fourth, Frank Sullivan, who is leaving the court to take a teaching position this fall, didn't address the panel.
Dickson will be leading a court in transition since it is expected this fall to get its third new justice in less than two years after no turnover for more than a decade. It could even get a fourth new member, since Dickson said Justice Robert Rucker hasn't decided whether to seek another 10-year term this fall.
Rucker said that with so much change, the court needed some stability.
"It's my view that with so much uncertainty … Justice Dickson as acting chief justice has been that steady hand," Rucker said. The court's newest members — Mark Massa and Steven David, both appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels — also recommended Dickson for the top job.
Massa said the appointment of three new justices in 24 months had brought "unprecedented change" and made continuity vital.
"To me, the commission made the right and natural choice. Brent Dickson is universally respected and has earned the complete trust of his colleagues and lawyers statewide. Any other selection would have been a surprise," Daniels said in a statement.
All three justices stressed that the chief justice does much more than write legal opinions and build consensus on the court — he also is the chief administrator of the state's court system, overseeing five judicial agencies and a myriad of initiatives ranging from programs to help attorneys deal with substance abuse or other personal crises to a long-term move to computerize the state courts and put their business online. Dickson, they said, was the best person for the job.
But Dickson, who has served on the court since 1986, told reporters after the vote that he hadn't initially wanted the position until he was talked into it by judges and other government officials.
"There was a growing number of voices that persuaded me to let myself be considered. We're facing an immense change in personnel on the court and our employees needed to know that stability was going to reign," Dickson said.
"They asked me to at least be willing to serve for a period of time, and I said OK," he added.
Dickson said he will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 in July 2016, before his five-year term as chief justice expires, but he wasn't sure if he would continue to serve as chief justice until then. "It kind of depends on a lot of personal issues, the issues of filling out the court, getting the vacancies filled. … It will be sometime between now and July of 2016," he said.
Dickson, who grew up in northwestern Indiana's Hobart, was an attorney in Lafayette when Gov. Robert Orr appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1986. Dickson is one of three current justices who were appointed by Republican governors.
Daniels appointed then-Boone County Judge Steven David to the court when Justice Theodore Boehm retired in 2010. Daniels picked Mark Massa, his former chief counsel in the governor's office, in March to fill the vacancy from Shepard's retirement.
Sullivan, who was appointed in 1993 by Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh, plans to retire this summer to take a teaching job at Indiana University's McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis. His replacement will be the third justice to be appointed by Daniels, leaving Rucker as the only Democratic appointee on the court. If Rucker steps down this summer, Daniels could appoint a fourth justice, matching the number appointed by Bayh two decades ago, and shifting the court to entirely Republican appointees.
But justices said Tuesday that politics had no place on the court. "We've never had a D versus R debate," Rucker said. "We've never had anyone come in with an agenda."
Dickson said it was especially important for the chief justice to avoid partisan politics so he could work with both parties in the Statehouse. "The chief justice must be seen as politically neutral," he said.