“Be careful what you sign up for.”
Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John G. Baker ’64 said the phrase has been a recurring theme in his life. But his split-second decisions have led to a long and interesting career on the bench, including 27 years on the court of appeals.
Baker was at Culver Academies earlier this month to hear a case as part of the Appeals on Wheels program, which brings cases before the public so students and citizens can witness the system at work. After hearing the case on March 17, Baker and fellow judges James S. Kirsch and Cale J. Bradford attended classes the following morning to talk with students.
Baker’s Culver career started with summer camp, and when he did make the move to boarding school during the middle of his freshman year of high school “things were pretty hard,” he said. “I was ready to go home after the first week.”
He was originally admitted on academic probation, Baker said, and when the Culver faculty found he had a reading deficiency, they worked with him to overcome it. Now, he spends the majority of his time reading and writing.
Baker played basketball and football “at the direction of the football coach. I didn’t think I was very good, but I ended up being the starting quarterback,” he said, which might have been an indication of how good the team was.
Since Culver was involved in the Jr. ROTC at the time, he was able to join the ROTC at Indiana University. He was planning on getting a master’s degree and becoming a career army officer when he happened to walk by the law school on the IU campus. In a last minute decision (“Be careful what you sign up for.”), he changed to the law school.
And he has been in Bloomington ever since. He went to work for a law firm in town and one of the partners was the city judge. The partner was not especially thrilled with spending his time sitting on the bench, so he assigned the law firm’s new associate Baker to serve as the pro-tem. When Indiana did away with the city judge and justice of the peace system in 1975, Baker became the county court judge, which he thought he would do for one year (Be careful . . .).
In 1976, when his position came up for election, nobody else wanted the post, so Baker was unopposed. Then the county court judge became a part of the superior court system and he started going from misdemeanors and traffic violations to murder cases.
And, Baker noted, IU being part of Bloomington added to his caseload. Some of the “world’s greatest college weekends” would end with the “world’s greatest college arraignment” days the following Monday. He laughed, “If people didn’t do stupid things, I’d be out of a job.”
On the court of appeals, there are 15 judges that serve on three-judge panels throughout the state. The judges are rotated every four months. They hear cases appealed from the trial courts, where there are 350 judges ruling on 1.3 million cases. Appellate court judges will hear approximately 2,000 of those cases, and the State Supreme Court will hear 80 of those cases. Cases would then go from the State Supreme Court for consideration by the United States Supreme Court, which also selects its cases from the federal court system.
Some of the recent cases Baker has heard include a question over property right along the Lake Michigan shoreline, the neglect of a dependent, and a resisting law enforcement conviction. The Court of Appeals does hear both civil and criminal matters.
Baker said his work is “mentally challenging” and some of his cases “can wear on you” emotionally. His best times in court have always been adoption proceedings. And, he added, he has learned after years of writing court decisions, there is “no such thing as good writing, there is only good rewriting.”