By Josh S. Tatum, Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP
On April 20, The Indiana Supreme Court heard oral argument in the Indiana Supreme Court courtroom, but this time the Court was also on the road. This argument took place in the original courtroom of the Hoosier State’s highest court, located in the first state Capitol building in Corydon. The argument commemorated the bicentennial of Indiana’s statehood in 1816. It also marked Justice Brent E. Dickson’s last argument as a justice, one of over 1,400 total over the former Chief Justice’s thirty years on the Court.
The original Capitol is a small, two-story building whose courtroom is about the size of a small modern-day classroom. The justices entered the courtroom from across the hall in the Senate chambers, which stood in for a robing room. After taking their seats, the five justices huddled together behind a bench built for the three-judge panels that heard cases in Corydon until 1825, when the capital moved to Indianapolis. That was also the last time the Supreme Court heard an argument in the building. About twenty-five seats behind counsels’ tables were filled by invitation only. The room was filled so tightly that the table for appellees’ counsel had to be moved once guests were seated and again after the argument to provide enough room for them to leave through the room’s only door.
Since the room’s single electrical outlet was dedicated to broadcast equipment, the advocates received time warnings from court staff standing in the hall who raised color-coded cards through the door. They made their arguments standing behind their respective tables without a podium. Because the bench is not elevated like in the courtroom in Indianapolis, this meant the lawyers were looking slightly down at the justices and just feet away.
Those attending the events in Corydon but unable to fit in the original Capitol’s courtroom could watch a live video feed in Harrison County’s courthouse next door. The same video feed was broadcast live around the state by the Indiana Department of Education, where public television stations and classrooms across the state could watch. A recording of the argument is expected to be posted on the Court’s website here.
Even though the surroundings were historical, the case was contemporary. Still, pioneer Hoosiers would recognize the themes. The question involved what duty a social host owed to guests at her home. The homeowner’s boyfriend, who lived there and bought a keg of beer with the host’s debit card, became involved in an altercation that eventually resulted in one of the party guest’s death. The Allen Superior Court granted the defendant social host summary judgement, but the Court of Appeals reversed.
Appellants’ advocate, Andrew L. Teel of the Fort Wayne firm Halver and Colvin, practiced his argument before a panel of the Indiana Appellate Institute, a program of the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Section providing moot panels for lawyers arguing before Indiana’s appellate courts. The service is free to those who are presenting their first oral argument in any court and those representing an indigent or pro bono client and $500 for all others. Fees help fund the Practice Section’s activities, including scholarships to national appellate training and contributions to the Indianapolis Bar Foundation. Teel applauded the Institute’s value, saying, “There is no question that I was more prepared and better equipped to address the justices' questions thanks to the moot argument.”
The occasion required volunteers beyond court staff, provided by the Indiana State Bar Association’s Leadership Development Academy. Current class members, alumni, and committee members helped visitors to their seats and distributed materials. The bars of Clark, Crawford, Floyd, Harrison and Scott counties also contributed to the occasion.
After the argument, the five justices helped unveil a historic marker commemorating State v. Lasselle, in which a slave woman named Polly Strong successfully sued her owner for her freedom by virtue of Indiana’s 1816 Constitution, which prohibited slavery. The Court issued that decision in 1820 after argument in the same courtroom used on April 20, 2016.
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