Indiana Supreme Court marks roots in state’s first capital

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Sitting shoulder to shoulder with his colleagues in the original Indiana Supreme Court chamber in Corydon, Justice Brent Dickson heard the last arguments of his 30-year career Wednesday.

While the day was special for Dickson, it wasn't the only reason judges, lawyers, educators and state leaders flocked to Corydon's historic town square. It was a small, humble building on Capitol Avenue that drew the most attention.

"It's hugely inspirational; it's like walking into the Statehouse and feeling uplifted, (like) the best of you is required," Dickson said.

The Federal-style building was the home of Indiana's Supreme Court from 1816 to 1825, when Corydon was the state's capital. The four stone walls also housed the budding state's House of Representatives and the Senate.

The Indiana Bicentennial Commission turned to Corydon, the state's first capital, to celebrate 200 years of statehood by holding modern-day court proceedings in the original courtroom. Bicentennial Commission Executive Director Perry Hammock said the event was one of about 1,200 events to be held throughout the state this year.

"And all of those are locally funded, locally put together. So it's great to see that grassroots support across the state of the bicentennial," Hammock said.

Hammock said that stepping into the historic building was a "wonderful feeling of history." But for the state's five justices, Wednesday wasn't all celebration and history. It was work.

For the better part of an hour, the five justices heard arguments in F. John Rogers, et al. v. Angela Martin, et al. The case dates back to May 8, 2010, when Angela Martin hosted a party for her then-fiance Brian Brothers at the home they both lived in, in Allen County.

Later that night, Brothers got into an altercation with guests Jerry Chambers and Paul Michalik. Chambers was injured and Michalik later died.

A civil lawsuit was filed against Martin and Brothers that claimed Martin was responsible for "furnishing" alcohol to Brothers and that she should have done something to help the injured guests.

The Allen County Superior Court granted summary judgment in Martin's favor. The case was then appealed in the Indiana Court of Appeals. That court reversed the trial court's decision and the case was handed over to the Indiana Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, counsel for both parties made their cases and answered the justices' questions. Chief Justice Loretta Rush handed the proceedings over to Dickson after noting that he is the second-longest serving justice in Indiana history. The first was Isaac Blackford, who sat in the very same room in the 1800s.

"The oral argument was real, it involved real people, and for me the concerns were: What is this case about, what are the legal issues and how does it affect the lives of these people involved," Dickson said.

For about 20 minutes, attorney Andrew Teel argued that Martin was in fact obligated to provide care to the injured party guests and that she was responsible for providing the alcohol.

Attorney Jane Malloy then argued on behalf of Martin, and Teel had time to respond. The arguments were broadcast live and will be available to watch on the high court's website.

Dickson said if the justices don't make a decision and write an opinion by April 29 — his last day as a justice — he won't be involved in the decision making. In that case, either his successor will take over or the decision will be made with four justices.

Rush and Dickson noted that the case was well-argued. For Malloy, who represents Martin, the proceedings were notable for another reason: It was the first time she argued in front of the Supreme Court.

"So yes, it was quite an experience," Malloy said. "I've been practicing law for 30 years and I would have to say this is the highlight of my career."

After the oral arguments, everyone gathered around the town square and mingled with actors dressed in 1800s attire. Next to the Harrison County courthouse, an historic marker waited to be unveiled.

The marker commemorates Polly Strong, a slave who won her freedom through the Indiana Supreme Court in 1820, years after the state's constitution prohibited slavery. Rush said the case is one of her favorites in Indiana history.

Eunice Trotter said marking Strong's story is important in acknowledging Indiana's place in history. Trotter is the great, great, great granddaughter of Mary Clark, an Indiana woman who also won her freedom through the court in 1821.

"This is absolutely very significant that the state recognizes its role in slavery by honoring the woman who led the battle to end it," Trotter said.

She said many people don't know how prominent slavery was in Indiana, and in Corydon. She hopes people recognize the contributions of black Hoosiers and remember Strong's story.

"I think in Indiana as a whole the contributions of African-Americans pretty much have been . downplayed, you don't hear much," Trotter said. "In the state, this part of the state, is where most African-Americans lived and they worked, they built infrastructure here that everyone benefited from."

It's the kind of history that brought people to Corydon on Wednesday. Hammock said bicentennial celebrations will return to the town in September for part of a torch relay.

"If you like history and (have) a love of Indiana, it's a place everybody should come," Hammock said. "Everybody in Indiana should be here at least once and see this place."

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