About 11 years ago when a vacancy opened on the state Supreme Court, Indiana was one of just a few without a woman serving as a justice.
Loretta Rush, who had been serving as a juvenile court judge in Tippecanoe County, wanted to change that.
Not only would she soon be appointed to the Indiana Supreme Court in 2012 by former Gov. Mitch Daniels, Rush would also within two years become the chief justice.
Rush is still one of just two female justices out of 111 to have served on the bench. (The other is Myra Selby, who served in the 1990s.)
She is alsopresident of the Conference of Chief Justices and recently represented the United States when she traveled to Finland to meet with justices from other countries to learn about judicial trends across the globe.
As chief justice, Rush holds significant oversight and administration responsibilities for courts across the state.
In a wide-ranging interview with State Affairs, Rush spoke about state lawmakers’ discussion on the constitutional right to bail, why she wants to see more diversionary courts, and her support for expanded assistance for Hoosiers in a mental health crisis.
“What can we do to help stabilize,” said Rush, who has been an attorney or judge for more than 40 years, “and not just keep our jails full of people struggling?”
The conversation is edited for clarity, brevity and length.
You've been on the Indiana Supreme Court for more than a decade. What's different today compared to when you started?
There's been a sea change in the last decade. We've gone paperless. We have promoted technology. We have a unified case management system.
So if you want to look up something you can do it on your phone as opposed to getting in your car and going to the courthouse. People can access their court case without having to pay money. It's right at their phone.
We are working a lot with regard to unrepresented litigants. So many of our people are unrepresented. If you go to indianalegalhelp.org, you can access how to navigate guardianships, divorce, expungement, name changes, paternity, just a number of different cases.
Courts can often be mysterious places for people. It seems like a lot of those technology upgrades are meant to remove some of the mystery.
Very much so, I think that transparency is important. Our capital is public trust. Are you going to get a fair shake? Are you going to procedurally have a fair hearing? How much is it going to cost? We think about all those things.
Do you find that most people understand the role that the Indiana Supreme Court plays in the administration of courts across the state?
No, I don’t think they do. It’s not just deciding cases; you have that administrative engine.
We’re always looking at systems. Do we have enough interpreters? Does everybody understand what’s going on in court?
A lot of people go to court sometimes at their lowest moment. And you want to make sure that the procedural safeguards are there and we’re doing what the constitution requires us to do.
Lawmakers right now are considering an amendment to the Indiana Constitution that would restrict the right to bail. What role do you and the courts play in that public discussion?
Under separation of powers, we don’t have a role in that.
But we do have a role procedurally looking at pretrial and pretrial reform. Twenty-five years ago, only 25% of people were in jail on a pretrial basis. Now it's 75%. So we’re really looking at low risk, nonviolent offenders who are poor who need to be able to bond out. We require under Criminal Rule 26 a risk assessment to determine their level of risk.
Bail and bond have always been for two things: One, to make sure that they're not arrested again; and two, to make sure they show up [for court]. So we're trying to meld the constitutional purposes of bail and bond with the practicalities of what's going on in the jail.
In your State of the Judiciary speech, you talked about diversionary or problem-solving courts. You said there’s more work to do. What are the successes and what’s left to do?
We’ve tripled them in the last decade. I think we’re growing as fast, per capita, as any other state.
I just want to make sure we don’t have justice by geography. If you live in a county and there’s a problem-solving court, you have that option available to you in lieu of incarceration.
I went to a veterans court graduation down in Floyd County in southern Indiana. Now 10 years later, somebody who would be sitting in the Department of Correction has a company, bought a house, is supporting his family and contributing to his community and he's been clean and sober all this time.
So that extra work at the front end with regard to having a problem-solving court — with accountability, regular court hearings, a team of people working with them —it’s really important. They work.
Our Indiana constitution talks about reformative justice, which means not just punitive, but also reformative. And I think it's a huge part of fulfilling the constitutional charge of redemption, reformation. The idea of people going in and out of jail, in out and of jail, and in and out of jail — something has got to break that cycle. Problem-solving courts have been effective and our judges are really on board.
This year, we've got a legislative ask for them to be funded. And I think we will be able to expand more.
Is the holdup about funding or are there just some counties who are uninterested in participating?
I mean, we had a mental health summit last year and, two years before that, we had a substance abuse summit where we invited judges to bring teams from their county. Every county showed up with a team of people to deal with justice-involved individuals who are struggling with addictions and justice-involved individuals who are struggling with serious mental illness. They all came because they really want to see a better result.
When you sit on that bench day in, day out and you're watching some of the pathos that comes before you, there's got to be a better way than just this revolving door. Plus it's a tremendous cost to taxpayers as well. So who can be safely out in the community and who cannot be? It's a tough call and our judges are making those calls every day.
What I’ve learned in Indiana is that any criminal justice reform effort tends to come from an individual county or agency because so much of our system is decentralized. So are there counties or prosecutors offices, for example, fighting against those problem-solving courts?
I'm seeing fewer and fewer of those. Some of the biggest proponents have been prosecutors.
At the substance abuse summit, we had a prosecutor from St. Joseph County come down and say, “Listen, I was skeptical, but now I see it’s working.” And the same thing on pretrial reform with regard to doing risk assessments and determining who can safely be out in their communities.
These are evidence-based, and that's the key. We're not just throwing things at the wall. A lot of these programs and disposition alternatives have been studied to find that they work.
We had to train our judges on the science of addiction. We had to train them on buprenorphine, naloxone, methadone. We brought doctors in, we brought studies in. What is working, what’s not working, for substance use disorder? So that we’re just smarter dealing with criminal actions because when you’re a community it’s not just the one criminal case.
There’s always kids involved. And there’s an employer. And then there’s family members involved. When somebody’s life is spiraling down when they come to court, if you can do something redemptive and put them in a diversion program where they can safely go through treatment, you're not just working on their life.
In your State of the Judiciary speech, you also mentioned Indiana’s 988 crisis hotline. Why is the chief justice putting a spotlight on mental health?
It touches almost every docket. And the idea that to have someone to call, someone to answer and somewhere to go in a mental health crisis, and it's not just digging yourself deeper into the criminal justice system. And there are solutions.
I was just on a phone call this morning with the lieutenant governor and with people from the mental health community. I think it's critical. I think the dollars that we spend on incarcerating somebody with mental health, if we could put it more at the front end, I think it would be money better spent with a better outcome for those individuals.
The other big bill along those lines is House Bill 1006, which seems to clarify a lot of the judicial procedures around mental health treatment.
It's been a Herculean effort to try to set up a system where they can get assessed and out of the jails and stabilized in lieu of going down the criminal justice route.
I've got to give a lot of credit to the work that Rep. Gregory Steuerwald did on that bill. I mean, he's a lawyer. He's been in courtrooms. He's been in jails.
I’m going to ask the most controversial question of the interview now, and that’s about cameras in the courtrooms. Do you think judges are actually going to allow them?
Well, we piloted it with six seasoned judges and they all had them and it worked. It may not be as much as you may want right in the beginning.
We have live streaming of our oral arguments. We live streamed a lot of trials throughout the state during COVID. The sky didn't fall.
We had two separate pilot programs. It was interesting: The judges were disappointed that more media didn't want to come. There's only two states left in the country that don’t allow cameras in the courtroom.
And so I think there's a level of transparency and public trust that can come by seeing this.
The public perception is that the U.S. Supreme Court is growing more partisan. Does the perception of the U.S. Supreme Court ever concern how your court is perceived?
When the National Center for State Courts does a pretty broad survey on trust in government, it's very disappointing to see the trust in government go down. The trust in state courts is higher than the federal courts right now, but the trust in courts is down, but state courts are the most trusted branch of government.
I think you do everything you can to be those neutral arbitrators of the facts that come before you. Protecting the institution of the court is always at the forefront of what I'm thinking so that people think that it isn't going to be based on anything other than the facts and the law.
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Header image: Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush chats with President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, and House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, before the 2023 State of the State Address on Jan. 10, 2023, at the Indiana Statehouse. (Credit: Ronni Moore)