“When I was young, there were not any female lawyers or judges around my community,” said Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Judge Nancy H. Vaidik, who grew up in Portage. “In college, a young deputy prosecutor came into one of my undergraduate classes to talk. I immediately became interested.”
That spark led Vaidik to continue from Valparaiso University to its law school and into the roles as deputy and, later, chief deputy in the Porter County Prosecutor’s Office. There, she founded the Porter County Victims Assistance Unit, the Porter County Sexual Assault Recovery Project and other programs.
“When I first started,” she said, “police officers would go to a home where a woman was beaten, and they would tell her just to walk around the block to cool down. A woman I grew up with wanted to file criminal charges against her husband, and the police would not file on the scene. What’s wrong with this picture?”
Private practice followed. After rising to a judgeship in 1992, she was named Judge of the Year by the Domestic Violence Coalition and awarded the Indiana Judges Association Special Merit Award.
Gov. Frank O’Bannon appointed Vaidik to the Court of Appeals in 2000, and last year her colleagues named her chief judge of the court for the three-year term that began in January.
The biggest difference between judge and chief judge?
“A lot more work,” Vaidik said. “As a judge, you’re spending most of your time writing cases, working with law clerks, researching. … I have a load of that to do and am also in charge of motions—8,000 of them come through the court a year.”
Vaidik’s influence in the legal community extends beyond her judgeship. Her outside roles have included serving as chairwoman of the Judicial Education and Community Relations committees of the Indiana Judicial Center.
In her spare time, Vaidik practices yoga (“we do it in the Statehouse over lunch. You’d be amazed at the high-powered people who do it”) and knitting (although never from the bench).
She also loves travel—although it often involves intense work. She trained trial lawyers for the United Nations in Africa prosecuting war crimes, Mexican lawyers trying to bring down drug lords, and solicitor advocates sorting through the troubles in Belfast, Ireland.
In addition, she shares her expertise as an adjunct professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, where she won its 2011 award for adjunct of the year.
Teaching so many students has given her a sharp eye in the courtroom. She said she can tell when a rookie lawyer is trying a case in her court. “Not only do I know if it’s a first case, I often can tell where they’ve been trained.”
She wishes more people understood the value of the judiciary. “I’ve worked hard to talk to people about the separation of powers and the three branches of government. We are an equal branch of government,” Vaidik said. “We do protect those whose constitutional rights are infringed. We check the power of the Legislature to draft laws that are unconstitutional. That’s a legitimate role that judges have.”
Does she disagree with many Supreme Court decisions? “My job isn’t to agree or disagree,” she declared. “My job is to follow precedent. It’s not about deciding what we think or don’t think.”•
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