It may not be altogether visible outside the legal profession, but make no mistake that the deaths of Magistrate Judge Denise LaRue and Senior Judge Larry McKinney have left a deep and widespread sense of loss.
Both of them have been heroes to their fellow professionals. The extraordinary caliber of their service to their fellow citizens has been a demonstration of the importance of identifying and recruiting the best possible servant leaders for judicial work.
Denise LaRue died at the beginning of August, about six years after taking the oath as a magistrate judge for the federal courts in central and southern Indiana.
She was a genuine trailblazer. She possessed just the sort of intellectual firepower we’d all hope to find in people entrusted with making judicial decisions, but she was also known for careful attention to the needs of the people who appeared before her. Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson got it right in highlighting her “compassionate insight into the problems faced by litigants.” There was “no pretense about her,” said fellow Magistrate Judge Tim Baker.
Her loss was very much still on our minds when the shocking news arrived that Larry McKinney had died toward the end of September.
Chief public defender Monica Foster called McKinney a stern judge who expected lawyers to know well the cases they were handling and the law that applied. He carried out this mission with an air of affability—no, genuine humor—appreciated by all. “One of a kind,” said Tim Baker.
Well, yes, whenever you saw Larry McKinney, you were always glad to see him.
That was as true for young people as it was for legal professionals. Judge McKinney was a passionate supporter of the “We the People” program, declared the Indiana Bar Foundation’s director Chuck Dunlap. Larry McKinney always looked forward, committed to building a better society by preparing tomorrow’s leaders.
Judges LaRue and McKinney have passed at a moment in the nation’s history when selecting judges is the topic of more than a little dispute. The federal selection process has been growing more contentious from the 1970’s through the nominations of Merrick Garland and Neil Gorsuch. The friction between Presidents Obama and Trump and their Senate opponents has been intense.
Larry McKinney and Denise LaRue are examples of how well the public is served when the decision-makers collaborate on lifting up the highest quality people. It makes a great difference as respects one of the pillars that sustains the country: building on the rule of law.
An old saying is that “courts have no power, only authority.” By this is meant that judges don’t have armies or taxing power at their disposal, only the power of thoughtful and impartial decisions to prompt people to follow their rulings.
That means that judges must commit to careful attention for individual litigants, work to understand the laws they are charged with upholding, and stand firmly for the highest ethical standards. When we manage to make that happen, people generally accept the outcomes, even when they disagree with the rulings.
When most Americans go to court, they don’t see state or federal supreme court justices. They find themselves in front of state or federal trial judges. There is every reason to believe that Sens. Todd Young and Joe Donnelly, who play such crucial roles in the decisions about just who should hold judicial office, are engaged in careful and collaborative work toward the best selections.
We will be a stronger country for it.•
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Shepard, formerly Indiana chief justice, now serves as senior judge and teaches law. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.