By Tyler D. Helmond, Voyles Zahn & Paul
He is a graduate of Butler University and the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. He practiced law in Johnson County from 1974 until taking the bench there, first as Juvenile Referee in 1987, and then as Superior Court Judge in 1989. He was named to the federal bankruptcy bench in 2000, where he now presides as Chief Judge of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana. He is the Honorable James K. Coachys, and he is the subject of the first ever Interrogatories column–candid questions and answers with some of the most interesting members of the Indiana bench and bar.
Q. You hold court in the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, which is one of the most architecturally significant courthouses in the State. If you had to work in any other courthouse in Indiana which would you choose?
A. Clearly, our building on East Ohio Street is still a magnificent structure, even at 109 years old. And, as noted in the recent Indiana Lawyer article, the recent improvements to the infrastructure will ensure that it remains one of the jewels in the federal system for years to come. It certainly could never be duplicated today.
I practiced law for a number of years prior to taking the bench, and had the opportunity to try cases in many of the courthouses throughout central and southern Indiana. While probably not being very objective, I believe the courthouse in my own county, Johnson County, is one of the finest at the state level. It was closed in the early 1980s and was completely renovated on the inside, re-opening in 1981. I was extremely fortunate not only to practice in that courthouse, but also to work in it as a judge in one of the superior courts for 12 years.
Q. You came to the federal bench from Johnson County. So did Magistrate Judge Ken Foster and District Judge Larry McKinney. What is it about Franklin that seems to produce a disproportionate number of federal judges?
A. First of all, I think your list should include Judge Sarah Evans Barker because of her Johnson County ties. Having said that, I’ve been asked this question several times because, for its size, the county does appear to have a disproportionate number of representatives here in the federal courthouse. I don’t think it’s anything in the water and I can’t really come up with a plausible explanation. I just consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to follow in the footsteps of such outstanding jurists.
Q. You drive a Saturn. That probably makes you Chief Judge of modest cars on the Southern District bench. Who is runner up?
A. It gets great gas mileage. To me, a car gets you from point A to point B. The type of car that does that is just something that isn’t important to me.
Q. The bankruptcy bar is on the front line of economic distress. Is the economy improving in your anecdotal experience?
A. I believe it is. Individual bankruptcy filings, not only locally but also nationally, have been slowly declining in the past few years. In addition, Chapter 11 business filings have decreased in the Southern District of Indiana since 2010. While these aren’t the only indicators, I do think this is a significant measure of a recovering economy. I am optimistic about the fact that we’re moving in the right direction.
Q. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy an individual can choose to “reaffirm” a debt during the proceedings. What is the most unconventional request for reaffirmation you have heard of?
A. A couple of instances quickly come to mind. The first is a debtor who wanted to reaffirm a $24,000 debt on a car that only had a current market value of $14,000. In addition, he did not have enough disposable income to afford the payments but, when asked how he was going to do so, he replied that he planned to cut down on his expenses by canceling his health insurance! That Reaffirmation Agreement was not approved. The second is a single-parent debtor, working only part- time, who had four young children, and wanted to reaffirm a debt of $7,500 on a full length fur coat which had a fair market value of approximately $2,000. Again, that motion was denied. Go figure.
Q. Your 14 year term as bankruptcy judge ends in two years. What are your plans?
A. I’m seriously considering retirement. My wife and I have never taken the opportunity to travel very much. Doing so, both here and abroad, would be first on our agenda. We’re also seriously considering relocating to a slightly warmer weather locale. Frankly, though, it’s a hard question to answer. Right now we have unlimited options. Family considerations may help, but we’ve discovered that when you have “unlimited options,” the decision becomes much more difficult.
Q. Judge Anthony Metz recently retired from the court. What will you miss most about him?
A. I’ll miss all the hard work and outstanding leadership he provided as Chief Bankruptcy Judge. Now I’ve inherited the responsibilities that come with the job. I’ll also miss his quick wit and insightful comments regarding our many discussions of the Bankruptcy Code. We have become good friends over the years and I wish him well in his retirement.
Q. Judges sometimes preside over mock trials based on historical trials. If you had to participate in such an event, what trial would you choose and what two local lawyers would you choose to represent the parties?
Q. I’m tempted to say the murder trial in the movie “My Cousin Vinny,” but I assume you’re looking for an example with more historical significance. The first case that comes to mind is The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, commonly referred to as the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” The trial is famous for many reasons but perhaps the most significant to us as lawyers is the appearances by the powerful attorneys on both sides. William Jennings Bryan led the prosecution in attempting to banish the theory of evolution from American classrooms. On the other side, defending Mr. Scopes, was the legendary defense attorney, Clarence Darrow. I could envision two of Indianapolis’ most prominent litigators in the starring roles, namely, Greg Garrison portraying William Jennings Bryan, and Jim Voyles as Clarence Darrow. I believe it would make for compelling drama, don’t you?
Q. There has been a proliferation of people and organizations doing cover videos of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” What would it take to get a Southern District version?
A. Even after Googling “cover videos of Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe,’” I have no idea how to answer this question. Obviously, it would take someone much younger than me to get “a Southern District version.”
Q. You graduated from Butler University. Are you ready to concede basketball superiority back to IU?
A. Notwithstanding IU’s No. 1 ranking, absolutely not! Even though I am also a graduate of Indiana University McKinney School of Law, my hardwood loyalty remains with the almost two years in a row national champion Butler Bulldogs.