If your life is so bereft of excitement you have actually read this column the past week or so, you may recall I have been helping teach an Internet class for the National Judicial College. Judges from across our great land tune in, sign on and discuss subjects from the currently hot areas of Children in Need of Services to Court Management. This week’s topic was Court Security and the lead faculty member was my good friend from Mississippi, Judge D. Neil Harris.
During the class judges participated via computer and telephone as we delved into many facets of how our courts should be protecting those who use and those who operate them. Gentle Reader, you may not be surprised to hear that it is not just the Judge of the Posey Circuit Court whose decisions are occasionally at odds with the thoughts of those whose lives are affected by them. It turns out that practically every person everywhere thinks she or he could have arrived at a better legal conclusion than the ones delivered by judges. Sometimes these court participants or their supporters get upset.
While there were many opinions and suggestions by the judicial faculty and the judges who were students as to how best to ensure those who must use our courts and those who are privileged to operate them can do so in a calm, reasonable and safe environment, the area of most varied positions concerned the role of firearms.
On a personal note, for the first thirty-five years of my tenure on the Bench, Posey County courts simply relied on the good will of all involved or more accurately, good luck. But in 2016 our sheriff, Greg Oeth, sought necessary additional deputies. The County Council and County Commissioners acceded to his well-documented requests as required by the rulings of the Indiana Supreme Court and provided officers who are available in court. Thank you on behalf of the public who must use the courts and the court staff who work there.
However, extra court security personnel was not the most examined topic in the Internet course. As I mentioned above, it was how or when or if judges and their court staffs should help provide their own security by carrying guns.
This column is not a column about the Second Amendment. The theory of firearm ownership, possession and use is for the legislative and executive branches. The judicial branch’s role is to decide cases that are brought to court. What we in the Internet course were trying to determine was not whether guns should be available to judges and their staffs but whether any guns that are legally available should be carried by judges and their staffs.
Gentle Reader, if you have made it this far I have good news for you. What I plan to do is relate two anecdotes then quit. I hope they illustrate what was the consensus of the judges in the course.
First, let’s delve into the meaning of an instructional video I did in 2014 for a course I taught for the Municipal Court Judges of Missouri. Court Security was part of my lectures.
To make the video I commandeered friends such as Chuck Minnette, Marty Crispino, Greg Oeth, Tom Latham, Jason Simmons and Rodney Fetcher. Jason wore his camouflage fatigues and brought his AR15 with him to the courthouse. He ran into the courthouse at about 10:00 a.m. on a workday, brandished his AR15 and yelled, “Where’s the Judge?” The only reaction from those in the courthouse that day was to point towards the courtroom. One lady walked right by Jason and instead of being alarmed or sounding an alarm simply asked, “Where’s the Clerk’s Office?” In 2014 Posey County’s court security was a little lax.
The second example comes from yesterday as Peg and I were talking to an Osage County, Oklahoma Sheriff’s Deputy who is also a certified instructor on gun safety and court security. His business card is a play on the television series Have Gun – Will Travel that starred Richard Boone as Paladin, a gunman for hire. Paladin’s card read, “Have Gun – Will Travel”. Paul Didlake, the Osage County Deputy, has the following card: “Have Gun Class – Will Travel”.
Paul told Peg and me about a recent Oklahoma case where a woman who had a gun license and carried a pistol in her purse was raped and murdered. She had left her purse in her car.
Paul told us his mantra for personal security is: “The best kind of gun to have is the one you actually carry.”
Early voting is a good thing. Last week I walked into the Posey County Courthouse on my way to work, stopped by the Election Office and voted. It took about five minutes. Posey County Clerk Betty Postletheweight and her friendly staff along with the Election Board made the process easy. It felt good to participate. It made me appreciate all the people who are willing to give of their time, talent and resources to help make this country work. Regardless of the election results there are no losers. We all win thanks to all those who help ensure the citizens remain in control of the government.
Such important but often unrecognized functions as who repairs the roads or runs the schools or patrols our neighborhoods go on without dramatics thanks to millions of public spirited Americans. Thanks to all who perform the tasks and a special thank you to those who are willing to serve but who do not win the opportunity. At the local level we are blessed to experience democracy put to use. On the other hand, when I fall prey to my weakness for schadenfreude and turn on the national cable news networks to see and hear how the presidential race is going I am reminded of beer-fueled sports fans engaged in a food fight.
It may be correct that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are not Mother Teresa and Mohandas Gandhi. However, CNN, MSNBC and FOX’s portrayals of them as America’s Medicis seems a little strained. Is it not possible they, just as many at the local level, simply want to serve? Goodness knows neither of them needs a job.
When I watch the national media question either The Donald or The Hillary it usually sounds something like the following faux debate:
News anchor – “Secretary Clinton/Mr. Trump, What is your plan to fight ISIS?”
Secretary Clinton/Mr. Trump – “If elected I will … “
News anchor – “Stop! Quit trying to avoid the all-important issue of your lack of character. Explain to the American people why you have the morals of an alley cat and the trustworthiness of a rattlesnake?”
I do not know Secretary Clinton or Mr. Trump. But my guess is they both have thoughts on how we should address such non-sexy matters as war, the economy and health-care. Unfortunately, neither candidate is allowed to ever complete an exposition of any of their positions without being interrupted by a news anchor who wishes to raise ratings with issues only the Kardashians understand.
There is one more presidential debate. Is there any chance the referee will simply let the players play the game?
In 2000 the Florida Supreme Court gave the presidency to Democrat Al Gore. Five judges on the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Florida court and gave the presidency to Republican George W. Bush.
Bush won by two electoral votes. Gore barely won the popular vote. Three of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who dissented, John Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote:
“Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
Judges may make mistakes. Judges may be ignorant or lazy or may have any number of faults. The one characteristic judges must not have is a public perception of prejudice for or against persons or beliefs.
The only thing judges must bring to their role in our government is the ability to engender public confidence in the integrity of their decisions. We may, and I often do, disagree with judicial decisions (by other judges of course). However, if we have confidence the judges acted impartially, we can accept even bad rulings and move on.
That is why Canon 4 of the Code of Judicial Conduct which all judges should follow requires:
“A Judge or candidate for Judicial Office Shall not Engage in Political or Campaign Activity that is Inconsistent with the Independence, Integrity, or Impartiality of the Judiciary.”
The Code also prohibits a judge from publicly, e.g. in a newspaper column, endorsing or opposing a candidate for public office.
These ethical proscriptions come to mind as I am currently engaged in helping to teach an internet course to judges for the National Judicial College. Judges from several states are participating as students or faculty. As with much of the judicial education in which I have been involved, in this course there is a great deal of side banter about many topics. In this current presidential campaign cycle politics is unavoidable. But unlike non-judicial conversations where my friends and family do not hesitate to state that one candidate is less than desired while the other must be elected, with judges I am reminded of the attitude Romeo’s friend, Mercutio had.
You may recall that in William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet the two families, Romeo’s Montagues and Juliet’s Capulets, were constantly feuding. In Act III, scene 1 Mercutio is stabbed by Juliet’s relative, Tybalt. As Mercutio lies dying he curses both sides by calling for, “A plague on both of your houses”. That pretty well sums up the ethical positions of my judicial colleagues.
Peg’s mom gave us her small Florida condo when she decided to move back to Indiana. It is part of a retirement complex where owners must be over 55 years of age; we qualify. For about 20 years we have spent part of the Christmas holidays at the condo. I remember our first trips there. We drove down non-stop (19 hours) and came back the same way. It now takes us at least 2 extra days. Those first few years we filled each day with trips to the beach, sightseeing, miles of walking on golf courses and many hours of swimming. We frequented sports bars where we watched college football games late into the night while noshing on burgers and fries washed down with draft beer.
We met other snowbirds from New York, Massachusetts, Canada and the mid-west who enjoyed getting away from the condo complex and engaging in dancing, dining and conversations about sports, politics and contemporary music. Those folks have remained friends for years.
During this same period Peg and I have attended my high school reunions which are held every 5 years in Oklahoma. Twenty years ago there was a live band playing Beatles songs. This past weekend there was one guy doing an Elvis impersonation. He was quite convincing. Whereas twenty years ago and several times in between everyone danced and shouted out the lyrics, this year people sat and listened politely while occasionally tapping their toes.
Over the years the reunions have included alumni football games, trips to local ranches for beer and barbeque and an occasional reprise of high school rivalries between contesting classmates. This year we met for a buffet of soft food and iced tea accompanied by a few announcements about the classmates who either could no longer be with us or who have retired to Florida.
Peg and I are looking forward to seeing some of those friends and our other Florida acquaintances this Christmas. We plan to sit around the pool and talk about the weather as we enjoy some lemonade. It will be exhilarating!
Those of us privileged to live in Posey County appreciate the advantages, and inescapability, of a rural court justice system. When it comes to Posey County Probation Officers such as Mark Funkhouser and Courtney Price, the community interconnections are salient. Anonymity is not likely for either the probation officers or those who need their services.
Mark and Courtney both graduated from Mt. Vernon schools and attended area colleges. Mark’s father, Bud, served on the Posey County Council and operated a local hardware store, in which Mark worked, for many years. Courtney is married to County Coroner Jay Price and is the daughter of Sheriff Greg Oeth and nurse practitioner Melody Oeth.
Mark has been a probation officer for 21 years and Courtney for 5. Both of them have been actively involved in numerous areas of public service in Posey County for several years. Mark was instrumental in the establishment of Posey County’s Community Corrections Board. He has volunteered his time and talent to many community organizations such as The Governor’s Commission for Drug-free Indiana, the Mt. Vernon Opportunity Center, Posey County Boys Group Home, Welfare to Work Planning Council and he currently serves as the Regional Director for the Indiana Community Health Worker Association, just to name some of his extensive community involvement.
Courtney is involved with her Point Township Nazarene Church, helps coach the Posey County Special Olympics Dance Team and to honor her mother who fought and defeated breast cancer Courtney is an active volunteer with Relay for Life. Courtney and Jay have a baby boy, Jaxson, and operate Price Excavating Company. Mark has two sons, Mike and Nick, and one grandson.
Mark and Courtney are heavily invested in Posey County both professionally and personally. They care about their community, their probationers and those affected by those who are on probation. As Courtney says:
“Probation is so much more than being an officer of the court, preparing presentences, supervising probationers, and doing field checks. It is getting involved in offenders’ lives, outreaching to community resources and providers, and acting as a bridge between the probationer, the court and the prosecutor. It is acting as a support system, a compass, a counselor, a listening ear, a role model, an educator, an accountability partner, an advocate, a resource director, and more for the probationer. We must be able to get creative and think outside of the box when it comes to each individual case. What may work best for one individual likely will not for the next. We are a career that wears many hats.”
Michelle Fortune and Jason Simmons are Posey County Probation Officers who work out of the same office on the first floor of the courthouse. They and their spouses have been friends for many years. Michelle and Jason both graduated from North Posey High School (the Vikings), Michelle in 1995 and Jason in 1994. Michelle and Jason both graduated from U.S.I. (the Screaming Eagles) in 1999.
Michelle is married to Detective Jeremy Fortune of the Posey County Sheriff’s Department. They have two children, Emily and Reagan. Jason and his wife Christine have two children, Alexa and Logan. Christine is a credit analyst for Old National Bank.
Michelle and Jason give generously of their time, talent and money to several public organizations. Jason and his family attend Frances Xavier Catholic Church and Jason has been a volunteer youth baseball, softball and basketball coach for several years. Jason plays golf and mows a lot of grass at his rural home near New Harmony, Indiana.
Michelle fought and defeated cancer and continues to maintain a regimen of physical fitness. She has competed in Spartan Races and serves as president of the Mt. Vernon F.O.P. Lodge #133 Auxiliary. Michelle is also a volunteer member of the important Posey County Critical Incident Response Team.
Michelle has been with the Posey Circuit Court Probation Department since July 1999. Jason joined the Probation Department in 2003. Together they perform myriad duties while working mainly with adult probationers. At my request, they have listed some of their duties as set forth below:
Conduct pre-hearing and pre-sentence investigations and prepare reports as required by law;
Assist the courts in making pretrial release decisions;
Assist the courts, prosecuting attorneys, and other law enforcement officials in making decisions regarding the diversion of charged individuals to appropriate non-criminal alternatives;
Furnish each person placed on probation a written statement of the conditions of probation and give instructions regarding how those conditions are to be met;
Supervise and assist persons on probation consistent with conditions of probation imposed by the court;
Bring to the court’s attention any modification in the conditions of probation considered advisable;
Notify the court when a violation of a condition of probation occurs;
Cooperate with public and private agencies and other persons concerned with the treatment or welfare of persons on probation, and assist them in obtaining services from those agencies and persons;
Keep accurate records of cases investigated by the probation officer and of all cases assigned by the court and make these records available to the court upon request;
Collect and disburse money from persons under supervision according to the order of the court, and keep accurate and complete accounts of those collections and disbursements;
Assist the court in transferring supervision of a person on probation to a court in another jurisdiction; and
Perform other duties required by law or as directed by the court.
During the course of performing these duties, a Probation Officer often takes on other roles such as social worker, therapist, and broker of services. Although probation officers are not allowed to give legal advice they must be knowledgeable in many areas of the law as often times they become witnesses and must testify in Court.
Posey County’s six probation officers work as a team. The fact that long-time friends can collaborate on these important matters provides even better public service.