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Appellate Courts: Indiana Supreme Court


Before Indiana became a state in 1816, it was part of the Indiana Territory (Illinois and Ohio were also a part of this Territory). The first court in the Indiana Territory was the General Court made up of three judges appointed by the governor of the Indiana Territory. These judges, along with the governor, wrote the laws for the Indiana Territory. When Indiana became a state in 1816, the Indiana Supreme Court was created out of the General Court. The new court met in the first state capital of Corydon in southern Indiana near the Ohio River on May 5, 1817. It was the governor's responsibility to appoint the Court's three judges to seven-year terms.

When Indiana adopted a new constitution in 1851, the responsibility for selecting Supreme Court judges was given to the people instead of the governor. That is, the people elected the judges to serve six-year terms. The 1851 constitution also said that three to five judges should sit on the Indiana Supreme Court, instead of only three as under the old system.

In 1970 the voters adopted a sweeping amendment that almost completely rewrote the parts of the 1851 constitution relating to courts. One of the biggest changes made by the amendment was that judges on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals would no longer be elected. Instead of elections, the amendment established that the governor, using the recommendations of a special committee, would once again appoint the Supreme Court justices. After a justice serves two years, the people of Indiana vote on whether or not the justice should stay on the Supreme Court. If the voters vote yes, then the justice stays on the court for ten more years. Once every ten years the people of Indiana vote on whether or not to keep a justice on the appellate court. Another change was to call members of the Supreme Court "justices" instead of judges.

[more about the history and origins of the supreme court on its website]

Choosing a Supreme Court Justice

Five judges, called justices, currently sit on the Indiana Supreme Court: a chief justice and four associate justices. When there is a vacancy on the court, the seven members of a group called the Judicial Nominating Commission submit a list of three names to the governor, who then selects the justice for the court. To be eligible to serve on the Indiana Supreme Court, a person must have practiced law in Indiana for at least ten years or must have been an Indiana trial judge for five years. Justices, like trial judges, are required to retire at age 75. Though there are only four associate justices currently, the constitution allows for up to eight associate justices if Indiana's legislature, the General Assembly, decides they are needed.

Choosing a Chief Justice

The Judicial Nominating Commission also picks one of the five justices to serve as chief justice of the court. The chief justice serves for a five-year term. At the end of the five years, that person can be chosen to serve as chief justice again, or the commission may choose a new chief justice. The chief justice hires people to help run the Supreme Court and gives regular reports about what is happening in Indiana's courts to the legislature. This report, called the State of the Judiciary, usually is presented in January and can be watched live or on tape from the Supreme Court's website: www.IN.gov/judiciary/supreme.

What Types of Cases Does the Indiana Supreme Court Hear?

In all appeals where a person was sentenced to death or life in prison, the Indiana Supreme Court has mandatory jurisdiction. This means the court must hear the appeal, and the case comes directly to the Supreme Court from the trial court instead of first going to the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court also has mandatory jurisdiction over appeals whenever a state trial court has declared a statute passed by the legislature to be unconstitutional.

In cases that have been first appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the Indiana Supreme Court has discretionary jurisdiction. This means that the five justices of the Supreme Court decide if they will hear the appeal. The Supreme Court selects cases that it thinks are the most important to Indiana citizens.

Supreme Court Jurisdiction

The Supreme Court has original exclusive jurisdiction in:

  1. admission to the practice of law;
  2. discipline and disbarment of those admitted;
  3. unauthorized practice of law;
  4. discipline, removal and retirement of judges;
  5. supervision of the exercise of jurisdiction by other courts;
  6. issuance of writs necessary in aid of its jurisdiction;
  7. appeals from judgments imposing a sentence of death;
  8. appeals from the denial of post-conviction relief in which the sentence was death;
  9. appealable cases where a state or federal statute has been declared unconstitutional; and
  10. on petition, cases involving substantial questions of law, great public importance, or emergency. The Supreme Court has the power to review and revise sentences imposed by lower courts.

[Sources: Indiana Constitution, Article 7, Section 4; Indiana Rules of Court, Appellate Rule 4]

When is the Court in Session?

The Indiana Supreme Court operates year round. While there is no set time period for how long it takes the court to issue its decision in a case, the court makes a special effort to deal quickly with cases involving children or issues of great public importance. In the spring of 2003, for example, the Court dealt with the redistricting of Marion County, location of the state capitol, in only 41 days. From July 2002 to June 2003, the Indiana Supreme Court received 836 petitions to transfer (334 civil and 502 criminal). The court also resolved 836 petitions to transfer during that time. In the same period, the court received 16 direct appeals of criminal cases. In total, the Court disposed of 1097 cases of different types during that reporting period. In 198 of these cases, the Court issued a majority opinion, including five opinions in death penalty cases1.

What do Indiana Supreme Court Justices Do?

The main job of the justices is to review appeals and write opinions explaining their decisions. An opinion is a discussion of the legal questions raised on appeal and the court's decision about those questions. All of the opinions written by the Supreme Court are filed with the Clerk of the Court in the Indiana State House. The opinions are also published both in books and on the Internet, so anyone can read them. However, this is not their only job.

Jobs of the Indiana Supreme Court

As you will see, dealing with appeals is very important, but it is actually only one part of the Indiana Supreme Court's job. And while overseeing Indiana's court system is a big job, there is a great deal of other business that is handled by the Indiana Supreme Court. Here are some other jobs done by the Supreme Court:

Division of Supreme Court Administration.

The Division of Supreme Court Administration assists the Supreme Court with the orderly management of the court, day-to-day fiscal management and budgetary planning, and collection and publication of Supreme Court statistics. In addition, attorneys at the Division serve as central counsel to the Court. Visit the Division Supreme Court Administration Website.

Division of State Court Administration. The Division of State Court Administration is the largest agency of the Supreme Court charged with performing various duties. These include: (1) examine the administrative methods and systems employed by Indiana Circuit Court Clerks' offices and related offices and make recommendations for improvement; (2) collect and publish courts' financial and caseload information; (3) serve the Judicial Nominating Commission and the Judicial Qualifications Commission in the performance of their duties; (4) administer payroll and benefits for Indiana trial court judges and prosecutors; (5) provide staff support for Indiana Supreme Court committees, including the Committee on Self Represented Litigants, the Commission for Race and Gender Fairness, and the Judicial Technology and Automation Committee. The Division produces several annual publications, including the Indiana Judicial Service Report and the Indiana Probation Report. Visit the Division of State Court Administration Website.

Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission/Commission on Judicial Qualifications. As noted above, the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission makes nominations to the governor for appellate court judgeships. This group can also recommend to the Supreme Court that judges retire or be removed for different reasons, including misconduct. Visit the Judicial Qualifications Commission Website.

Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission. The Indiana Disciplinary Commission investigates complaints about unethical conduct by lawyers. This group recommends to the Supreme Court what kind of punishment is appropriate if a lawyer or judge has done something wrong. For example, if you hire a lawyer and the lawyer doesn't show up in court when required, the lawyer can be reported to the Disciplinary Commission. Visit the Disciplinary Commission Website.

Indiana Board of Law Examiners. Law school graduates must apply to the Indiana Board of Law Examiners for permission to practice law in Indiana. The board administers and grades the bar exam, which is a two-day test that law school graduates must pass before they can get a license to practice law. Visit the Board of Law Examiners Website.

Indiana Commission for Continuing Legal Education. This group keeps track of the continuing education records for lawyers admitted to practice in Indiana and accredits continuing education programs offered to lawyers in Indiana. Lawyers are required to complete a certain amount of continuing education credits each year in order to continue to practice law in Indiana. Continuing education subject matter includes issues of law, court rules, legal business practice, technology, and more. Visit the Commission for Continuing Legal Education Website.

Indiana Judicial Center. The Judicial Center is the staff agency for the Judicial Conference of Indiana, which is the collective body of appellate and trial court judges in Indiana. The Judicial Conference maintains many committees, for which the Judicial Center provides staff support. These committees include the Domestic Relations Committee, the Probation Committee, and the Jury Committee. In addition, judges are required to complete a certain amount of continuing education credits each year, much like attorneys, and the Judicial Center provides educational opportunities on various subjects important to judges on an annual basis. Visit the Indiana Judicial Center Website.

Learn more about judicial committees, which play an integral role in the development of projects and policies that improve the Indiana judicial system.


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1 Indiana Supreme Court Annual Report, July 1, 2002 - June 30, 2003.