IUPUI Law Professionals Reflect On Former Chief Justice's Impact

Mar 30, 2016

Justice Brent Dickson has served 30 years on the Indiana Supreme Court.
Credit Indiana Judicial Branch / http://www.in.gov/judiciary/citc/2829.htm

As Brent Dickson's 30-year tenure on the Indiana Supreme Court draws to a close, IUPUI's McKinney School of Law is looking at the precedents he leaves behind.

The former chief justice was a spectator as six attorneys and law professors dissected key rulings in civil, criminal, and constitutional law, from among the more than 700 majority opinions Dickson has authored.

Indianapolis attorney Maggie Smith says Dickson's opinions wrote the rulebook on wrongful death cases, from spelling out what losses could be compensated to allowing a wrongful death suit in the case of a man whose relatives linked his suicide to the injuries he sustained in the Speedway bomber case.

And Smith says Dickson’s opinions show a consistent preference to let juries decide factual disputes – he even went out of his way to scold his predecessors for a 1976 ruling suggesting juries would put a “thumb on the scale” to help people by awarding them damages.

Smith says, “Justice Dickson, on behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court, took the opportunity to say, ‘Alright, people. Knock that characterization off. That is incredibly degrading to our juries. We don’t have Robin Hood juries out there, we have people that we can respect.’”

Panelists say Dickson's opinions always placed the highest priority on the words of the constitution and the laws as written.

And law professor Michael DeBoer of Alabama’s Faulkner University, a former clerk for Justice Dickson, says his former boss was a painstaking strict constructionist.

“His commitment to the framers’ intent, the Constitutional text, the rule of law reflect a humble desire to give effect to the meaning of provisions laid down by others and a conscious effort on his part to set aside personal, subjective values,” DeBoer says.

DeBoer and Smith say Dickson's opinions show a deep commitment to allowing the jury process to work. Indiana's standard for allowing a judge decide a case before it reaches trial is tougher than the federal standard -- a principle shaped by several Dickson opinions.

Dickson will retire next month after Gov. Pence selects his successor from among three finalists chosen by the Judicial Nominating Commission three weeks ago.