By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Finally. That was the word uttered time and again, with an exclamation point for emphasis, late last week when Gov. Mitch Daniels announced he’d picked a woman to sit on what’s been the all-male Indiana Supreme Court.
Daniels’ decision to appoint Tippecanoe County Judge Loretta Rush to the state’s high court is history-making for a state with a big gender gap in its judiciary. Rush is only the second woman to sit on the court in its nearly 200-year history.
Much has been and will be made of the fact that Rush is a woman. It should be. There is disproportionately low number of women on the bench in our lower courts as well: Only about 20 percent of the state trial court judges are women.
But just as Daniels’ prior two selections for the top court — Mark Massa and Steve David — are more than just their gender, Rush should be noteworthy for her work as well.
Those who know her best praise her as for her work as a juvenile court judge who has called on her community to help her help their most vulnerable and the most troubled children. She’s reached out to schools, churches, community and business groups — to anyone she could find — to make the case that it’s a shared responsibility to make sure no child is left behind.
Her “judicial activism” — in the best sense of the phrase — is even more compelling given a harrowing personal experience. In November 1998, a deeply troubled young man kicked open the door of her home and tried to kill her husband. She suffered injuries while protecting the couple’s three children.
Rush knew the assailant: A decade earlier, as a lawyer in private practice, she was appointed by the court to act as his legal advocate — what’s called a guardian ad litem. At the time, he was only 14 but had suffered through a lifetime of misery — a ward of the court since the age of 2, followed by years of failed placements in homes and mental health facilities. He ended up spending the last part of his teenage years incarcerated.
In her application to be considered for Indiana Supreme Court, Rush cited that experience as one of the most significant legal matters ever entrusted to her.
Here is some of what she wrote about how that searing experience shaped her later role as a judge: “I look at the children that find themselves in our court system and understand the long-standing toll such things as child abuse, neglect and untreated mental health can have on their adult lives ... .
“I look at all the parties and participants involved with any case, appreciate what they bring into the courtroom and understand that it is often difficult and intimidating for witnesses and participants to testify before us as judges. I learned that mentors and volunteers working with the juvenile courts are critical ... .
“Finally,” she added, “my family’s ordeal heightened my resolve that our judicial system must always strive to earn the trust of the public and remain sensitive to, and protect the rights of all that come before us.”
Those words seem more insightful than just saying that our newest justice is a woman.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.