A question-and-answer session followed Appeals on Wheels, when three Indiana Court of Appeals judges traveled from their usual Indianapolis courtroom to the Batesville High School auditorium to hear oral argument about a murder trial. Judges were unable to speak about the case, but sounded off on other topics Oct. 30.
BHS social studies teacher Darrick Cox asked, “What kinds of decisions can be made in the appeals process?” Most of the 1.4 million cases in Indiana each year begin and end at trial courts, Chief Judge Edward Najam Jr. noted. “We consider appeals from all 92 counties.” The Indiana Constitution states every person has the right to one appeal. For each case, there is one judge at the trial court, three at the Indiana Court of Appeals (15 total members rotate cases) and five Indiana Supreme Court justices. Annually, the two higher courts issue 2,100 and fewer than 100 opinions, respectively.
Judge Mark Bailey, who grew up in Decatur County, explained, “The essence of the law is a human endeavor ... it’s proved beyond a reasonable doubt. When your liberty is at stake,” the Indiana Court of Appeals has a much higher standard than a trial court.
“We try to determine if the jury trial was fair. We review the record” and if there’s an error, the Court of Appeals will send it back to the trial court.
Judge Cale Bradford, who also serves as an IUPUI forensic science and the law adjunct instructor, asked 2011 BHS graduate Alex Dudley, now an attorney who was the bailiff during the Batesville Appeals on Wheels, about his path to becoming a lawyer. The Bulldog reported he studied education at Butler University. “That’s the first misconception. You can study anything” before entering law school. After three years, he graduated from the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, then passed the Indiana Bar.
For students interested in law careers, “my biggest suggestion is to contact local attorneys” and seek summer internships. “I think it’s the best experience you could get in deciding whether you want to do this for a career.”
Three BHS seniors posed questions.
Ciera Belter quizzed, “What made you want to pursue a career in law?” Bradford pointed out his relatives, from his dad to his son, “are a bunch of lawyers. It’s a way to really help people with their problems ... Try to get through life without a lawyer. We truly help people through very difficult situations ... A lot of really good people find themselves in bad circumstances and we help them find a way out of that.”
According to attorney Stacy Uliana, Bargersville, who represented defendant Joshua Risinger during Appeals on Wheels, “I’ve always been drawn to kind of helping the underdog. Law is an interesting way of doing that. People make mistakes and it’s good to have someone there to fight for them.”
Liz Heidlage asked how a trial ends up at the Indiana Supreme Court level. Bailey said while most cases come to their court on appeal, tax or death penalty cases automatically go to the Supreme Court. Najam added, “If someone is not happy with our decision, they can petition the Supreme Court to take the case from us.” That court has discretion whether to accept a case.
Cox suggested, “Talk about U.S. constitutional amendments. Which one has the most controversy?” The chief judge reported quite a number of Court of Appeals cases involve the Fourth Amendment (search and seizure), Fifth Amendment (right against self-incrimination) and First Amendment (typically free expression).
The 14th Amendment (equal civil and legal rights to African Americans) is most prevalent in federal cases. In recent times, the Indiana Court of Appeals has had its share of Second Amendment (right to bear arms) cases.
Bradford added Sixth Amendment (right to a speedy trial) and Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment, usually arguments for and against the death penalty and jail overcrowding issues) are common.
Student Mason Enneking wondered, “Is there ever any concern of (legal) precedents becoming outdated?” According to Najam, who was an IU student body president before graduating from Harvard Law School, “Our court is a common law court. Our cases are precedents that will be relied upon in the future.”
He pointed out a 1907 ruling may not make sense anymore. “It can be modified or superseded. Courts are called upon to reconsider old opinions.” The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed itself as soon as two years after a decision, Najam pointed out.
What happens when state and federal laws conflict? He answered, “The law of the United States is the supreme law of the land ... the federal court prevails.” However, if there are adequate grounds for a state decision to stand, the U.S. Supreme Court will not overrule the state’s finding.