Todd reflects on his 24 years as judge
Saturday, December 29, 2012 4:00 AM
Many people have observations about Circuit Court Judge Ted Todd's judicial career, but his favorite comes from his granddaughter Janie.
Circuit Court Judge Ted Todd is stepping down after serving for 24 years. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
"When you're a lawyer, you know what should happen in that
courtroom. When you're a judge, you have no idea. A lawyer looks at it as a case to win, and a judge looks at it as a problem to solve."
Circuit Court Judge Ted Todd
She came to work with him one day when she was about 3-years-old. Sitting between her grandfather and the court reporter, her eyes barely peering over the bench, she took in the surroundings.
Curious about how her day went, Janie's father asked her about what her grandfather did.
"Well, he wears a black dress and talks into a microwave," Janie told her father.
"So that's what a judge does," Todd said with a laugh earlier this week as he sat down to talk about his career on the bench.
Monday marks the final day of Todd's fourth term as judge. He announced in January he would not seek re-election.
But, he's not walking away entirely. Todd is going to take senior judge status, which allows him to travel to different courts and fill in when the sitting judge is on vacation, is sick or is overseeing a jury trial. Todd is also a certified mediator and will help mediate cases if needed.
Todd's resume is lengthy.
Before his 24-year career as judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit, he spent 24 years in practice in Jefferson and Switzerland counties.
Todd, a native of Three Rivers, Mich., graduated from Wabash College in 1961, where he majored in English with a minor in philosophy. He planned to study political science and economics, but a professor steered him toward law.
He graduated from the Duke University School of Law in 1964 and moved to Jefferson County that same year.
Todd has represented the Jefferson County Commission, Hanover Town Council and the Kent Water Co. He served as a public defender, representing defendants in major felony cases, including D.H. Fleenor, who received the death penalty in 1984 after being found guilty of killing two people in Jefferson County. Todd also spent four years as a deputy prosecutor.
Todd oversaw the sentencing hearings for three of the four teenage girls who were convicted of torturing and killing Shanda Sharer. Todd said that case drew the most attention of any case he presided over.
Todd served on the Indiana State Board of Law Examiners from 1989 until 1998, spending his final year on the board as president. He also served as the chairman of the District 12 Pro Bono Committee from 1999 until 2005.
The biggest concern Todd had when he was preparing to make the transition from attorney to judge was how he would be perceived by the lawyers. But everything worked out because both he and the others were conscious of the change and helped Todd with the adjustment.
"When you're a lawyer, you know what should happen in that courtroom. When you're a judge, you have no idea. A lawyer looks at it as a case to win, and a judge looks at it as a problem to solve," he said.
More often than not, the higher-profile cases tend to be easier from a judge's perspective.
"When you think about it as a lawyer, you think about big cases as being very difficult. And of course they are. But the lawyers are well-prepared and that makes the judge's job a lot easier," he said.
The population and make-up of Jefferson County has remained consistent over the years, but the legal landscape has changed dramatically. Todd said that drug cases are by far the most common type of crime he deals with.
"There weren't nearly as many drug cases (when I started)," he said. Seeing a drug case back then was a rarity.
Another change he's seen is the increase in female attorneys. Todd said when he was in law school, there were three women in his class. All three transferred from the school before graduating, he said.
A circuit judge's role also has changed since Todd started. The original intent was for a circuit judge to travel to several jurisdictions to rule on cases. Todd was the Circuit Court judge for Jefferson and Switzerland counties until 2008 when the General Assembly voted to give Switzerland County its own Circuit Court.
One of Todd's most vivid memories is of an event he wish hadn't happened - the Jefferson County Courthouse fire in 2009.
"It sort of spoiled my last term," Todd said.
After the fire, his temporary courtroom, a small room in the Jefferson County annex building, had a cramped office without windows.
Crews were unable to get files out of the third- floor offices after the fire, fearing that the dome might fall through the heavily damaged roof. The files were covered with mold by the time they were retrieved. They had to be sent out to be cleaned and copied. It was about two months before the files were returned.
"When you walk into an office ... I can see a file over there and I know what that file is. I know what it's about. But if it's taken away from me for two months, and then bring it back, I don't know what they're talking about," he said. Todd had to go back and reread the files while listening to recordings to refresh his memory of the cases.
Todd said he wished county officials would have voted to build an addition onto the courthouse because he believes there will be another judge added in the next few years.
"In fact, right now, it needs three courts. It really does," he said.
Caseload studies show that the Jefferson County courts have more cases than two judges can handle. Todd said most counties the size of Jefferson County have at least three judges.
"It's really getting to a point where it's very stressful. We don't have enough time to process cases properly," Todd said.
The job does have its lighter moments. One of Todd's favorites came during a juvenile hearing. A girl had gotten in trouble at Madison Consolidated High School after a fight with another girl. She attacked the girl in the bathroom and rubbed toothpaste in her hair.
During the hearing, Todd asked the girl about her professional aspirations. Her response: A dental hygienist.
"This was completely unconscious on her part. I lost it," Todd said. "She was kind of surprised when I started laughing, and so was her mother."
Todd has left an impact on many of the people he's come into contact with over the years.
Superior Court Judge Alison Frazier has known Todd since she started her practice in 2001. She has worked with Todd in the court system since she became a judge in 2009. She's asked Todd for advice and pointers along the way.
"What stands out about Judge Todd is, from a judge's perspective, he was always welcoming me to ask questions, bounce ideas off of, to commiserate with. He has been a great mentor to me," she said.
Frazier was impressed with the amount of time Todd was willing to invest in the profession. Even though he had several cases to deal with every day, he still took time to talk with her. The biggest thing she'll miss, she said, is his presence in the building.
"Knowing he is present in the courthouse is very comforting," she said.
Merritt Alcorn, who has been practicing law in Madison since 1975, has known Todd since 1972 when he assisted Todd on a case of a wrongfully imprisoned man who police said had been involved in a lynch mob.
Todd was able to prove the sheriff elicited a forced confession and the man went free.
"I've always considered Ted a personal friend since we worked together early on," Alcorn said.
Alcorn described Todd as a patient man, who was willing to listen not only to the attorneys, but also to the parties involved in a suit. Todd is a great legal researcher who's always willing to look up the answer to a legal question he was unsure of, Alcorn said.
"I think he's given the community a great service in his years as judge," he said.
After nearly 50 years of working in law, Todd has learned several lessons along the way.
"If you practice law in Madison or if you are a judge, two things will happen every day if you let them: One, you'll learn some new law you didn't know before or a different way to apply a law you already knew. And the second one is you'll get a good laugh over human nature. And those two things just happen," he said.
Todd said what he will miss most are his staff and the lawyers he presided over and worked with.
The daily pressure, on the other hand, he will not.
Todd said he has no plans to leave the community, and he'll more than likely be in the courthouse from time to time. But he has other long-term goals to focus on.
"My youngest grandson, I'll be 88 when he graduates from college, so I've got to stay young for that," he said.