Supreme Court candidates get second round of vetting

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A state commission is set to re-interview the 15 remaining candidates for a spot on the Indiana Supreme Court before it selects three finalists to recommend to the governor.

The Judicial Nominating Commission will begin a second round of interviews Thursday with the candidates to replace Justice Brent Dickson, who is retiring. After Friday's interviews, it will deliberate privately before voting in public to recommend three finalists to Gov. Mike Pence. Pence will have 60 days to select one of the three to be his first appointment to the court.

Dickson will step down April 29 before reaching the court's mandatory retirement age of 75. His departure will mean four of the court's five justices will have been appointed since 2010.

Pence's predecessor and fellow Republican, Mitch Daniels, appointed Justice Steven David in 2010 and Justice Mark Massa and Justice Loretta Rush in 2012, after the retirements of three members of the court. Rush was named the court's chief justice in 2014.

The seven-member commission conducted a first round of interviews in mid-February with the field of 29 applicants for Dickson's job and chose the 15 semifinalists.

They include Hamilton Superior Court Judge Steven Nation and Indianapolis attorney Geoffrey Slaughter, both of whom were finalists Daniels passed over in in choosing Rush.

Also among the semifinalists are state Solicitor General Thomas Fisher, and two women, Allen Superior Court Judge Frances Gull and Clark Circuit Court Judge Vicki Carmichael.

Court observers who have followed the commission's work expect the panel could favor finalists with a civil law background, rather than experience as a trial court judge or prosecutor, said Joel Schumm, an Indiana University law professor.

Schumm, an expert on Indiana's courts, said the high court's recent retirements have left it heavy with justices who largely worked as judges or prosecutors. Rush and David previously served as trial court judges and Massa was a prosecutor for much of his career.

"Some people anticipate that applicants with a civil background may do well in this process because that's an area that with some of the retirements really hasn't been replaced," he said.

Former commission member William E. Winingham Jr. said that may be one of the factors the panel looks at. But he said its members tend to focus more on the candidates' intellect and "how impressive their past experience" is in weighing possible finalists.

He said it's not easy choosing finalists for the state's court of last resort and there's always a lot of discussion among the members on "the pros and cons of various candidates."

"It's a very difficult process because there are usually several very good candidates and the commission members certainly have different viewpoints," said Winingham, who served on the panel from 2011 to 2014.

Dickson joined the court in January 1986 and also served as chief justice for more than two years before Rush was chosen for that post, making her Indiana's first female chief justice.

The high court has one remaining Democratic appointee. Justice Robert Rucker, who is also the court's only black justice, was named to the bench in 1999 by Gov. Frank O'Bannon.

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