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The Ten Spot: Judge John D. Tinder

This is the first judicial interview in what will be an ongoing series here at Indiana Barrister (IB) titled “The Ten Spot.” The first to graciously participate is Judge John Daniel Tinder of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

Judge Tinder was appointed District Court Judge for the Southern District of Indiana in September 1987. From May 1984 until his appointment to the bench, Judge Tinder served as United States Attorney for this District. A lifelong resident of Indianapolis, he earned undergraduate and law degrees from Indiana University in Bloomington.

Prior to his appointment as U.S. Attorney, Judge Tinder had been in the private practice of law in Indianapolis, served as Chief Trial Deputy for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, was a public defender for the Superior Court of Marion County, Criminal Division, and had served as an Assistant United States Attorney.

1. How did you come to President Reagan’s attention as a potential District Court nominee, and when did you first realize that you might be interested in being a federal judge?

At the time the opening for this position occurred (1986–there were actually 2 judgeship openings in this district at the time), Senators Lugar and Quayle empanelled a committee to review applications. The committee consisted of the Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, the President of the Indiana State Bar Association, an appointee of the Indiana Governor and three appointees each from the Senators. The committee accepted applications and conducted interviews of the candidates. At the conclusion of the review process, the committee sent the names of 5 of the candidates to the Senators, who in turn sent the names to the White House. The White House and the Office of Legal Policy of the Department of Justice conducted additional screening and some interviewing. Subsequently, President Reagan called me to ask if I would accept the appointment. The call came the day after I.U. beat Syracuse in the final game of the 1987 NCAA basketball tournament. As I responded in the affirmative to President Reagan’s question to me, I told him that his question to me was the equivalent of asking Coach Bob Knight if he wanted Keith Smart to take that last second shot the night before in the Superdome. He seemed amused. My nomination was followed by the usual F.B.I. background investigation, American Bar Association review and Senate Judiciary Committee scrutiny and hearing. The process ended with Senate confirmation during the last session before the August recess in 1987, I think on August 8th. Your readers might recall that the first order of business for the Senate Judiciary Committee after that recess were the Bork hearings. I was quite relieved to be through the process before that.

I first became interested in seeking a federal judgeship when the 2nd opening became available in this district in 1986. I had not given the concept much thought before that.

2. How has being a “lifelong” Indianapolis resident affected your perspective on the bench?

I don’t know if this would be considered a positive or negative. Living here has allowed me to have some sense of the central Indiana community, especially the legal community. I don’t know if living in other places would have affected my perspective as a judge. I try to keep in mind that the court serves the entire 60 county district.

3. Are you pleased with how the district court is functioning today as a collegial body?

In my opinion, we are a very collegial group. I think we are good colleagues on the bench and good friends off the bench. Despite wrestling with one of the largest caseloads per judge in the country (in the federal court system–state court judges generally have much larger caseloads than we do), we still find time to visit with each other from time to time, and they are always pleasant visits.

4. What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the district courts today?

There have been some ugly indications in recent years that certain members of Congress do not understand the role of federal courts in our three coequal branch system of government. The challenge may lie in how these courts are affected as a result of these misunderstandings, in terms of budget, jurisdiction, etc.

5. What are your most favorite and least favorite aspects of being a district court judge?

Some of the things I enjoy the most are: working with a wonderful staff, having jurors from throughout the district serve on cases and working with lawyers who enjoy this terrific profession. The most fun thing we district judges get to do is preside at the naturalization ceremonies for new citizens. It is one court event where everyone is happy.

There is little on the negative side of this work. If I had to pick one thing, I would say that the most difficult part of the job is the endless flow of work. I would love to be able to go home one day each week, or even one day each month, knowing that all of the things that I could have done to move my workload to completion had been done. In over 18 years in this job, I have never had even one of those days. There is so much to do on so many cases that much goes undone each day. Even in the midst of time away from the office, thoughts will pop into my head about cases that have been lingering too long in my office. Guilt learned from 12 years in Catholic schools and a sizeable number of challenging cases make for a nasty combination. It would be a great thrill to walk into my office some morning to a clean desk to start on a brand new slate of cases. It isn’t going to happen.

6. Identify the one federal or state court judge, living or dead, whom you admire the most and explain why.

It is impossible to choose just one person who would fit this category. Instead, I want to comment on one of the many judges I admire greatly, the Honorable Patricia J. Gifford of the Criminal Division of the Marion County, Indiana Superior Court. I had the privilege of appearing before her many times when I was a lawyer. Judge Gifford has presided in one of the toughest courts for over 25 years, a court in which she sees nothing but cases involving robbery, murder, rape, child molesting, etc. Nonetheless, she is always courteous to the lawyers, witnesses and litigants, and she always has a pleasant demeanor. She does not suffer fools, but she runs a fair and prompt courtroom. I think that Judge Gifford epitomizes how a judge should conduct herself in and around court. Moreover, despite the human carnage that she sees in case after case, she has not let this work affect her personal life away from the court, nor has she let the history of the many cases she has handled through the years impair her ability to provide each defendant with the opportunity for a fair trial and each convicted defendant with a fair but appropriate sentence. Her talents were showcased a few years ago in the Mike Tyson case, and I think she demonstrated to the nation’s legal community how a high profile trial ought to be conducted. As I read about the seemingly endless cases, principally those in the state of California, it seems to me that all judges could learn a great deal from Judge Gifford. Moreover, she treats all cases, not just the high profile ones, in the same dignified and professional manner. To do that throughout her career demonstrates her elegance as a judge and a person.

7. Do you feel the judiciary has become too “politicized” in recent years? Why or why not?

See my answer to #4 above. I don’t think that the judiciary can be fairly accused of acting in a political way, with very few exceptions. I think that American courts steadfastly hold to the principle that a case or controversy must exist before a court has authority to act. I also think that American courts generally strive to merely apply or interpret the law rather than create it. I think that some of the criticisms of judicial decisions by members of the other two branches, and as further fueled by the media ‘talking heads’, have been inappropriately politicized. Much of the controversy arises when legislative acts are written in general ways, without careful consideration of how the laws will work in practice.

8. You are constantly in touch with the state’s law schools, are regularly in the market for recent law school graduates seeking to be hired as law clerks, and review on a daily basis the work of people who graduated from one law school or another. In what ways should the Nation’s system of legal education be reformed and/or improved?

J.D. programs should be four years in length for students who will practice law, with the first two years involving academic courses, much as they are taught currently, and the last two years involving principally clinical experiences under the supervision of carefully selected lawyers and judges. I think law schools should look to medical schools to design a program more like the medical model where an internship is a requirement for graduation for students who will practice law. As our legal educational and bar admissions systems now work, a law school graduate who passes the bar is permitted to handle a death penalty case or a multi-million dollar transaction before the ink is dry on the admission certificate. I think we ought to find a way to transition from the academic world of law school to the pragmatic challenges of the practice of law. This would require the involvement of practicing lawyers and judge, but that is done at medical schools with practicing physicians, so it can be done. If a student attends law school for the pure academic experience and will not practice law, three years of academic classes without clinical experiences may be enough (or too much.) But for those who will have the responsibility of handling the legal affairs of clients, or who will serve as judges, there ought to be a mandatory emphasis on the practical, ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that they will face in the legal profession. While it might take longer to accomplish a program like this, I think it would better qualify law school graduates to enter the practice of law, and I also think it would be a good think to link practicing lawyers and judges to the education of aspiring lawyers.

9. What qualities do you look for in a law clerk that are unique and differ from what other judges may look for?

I doubt that I look for any qualities that other judges do not. The ideal candidate is smart, a great writer, works hard and quickly and is a pleasant person with whom to work. Some might say that I look for my opposite to balance things out here in the office.

10. What do you do for enjoyment and/or relaxation in your spare time?

Too many hobbies, not enough time. It is with reluctance that I discuss this subject at all because as soon as lawyers find out you have any kind of interest in something, they fall all over themselves trying throw analogies into their arguments and briefs to mention they think your favorite hobby is. When reports of my interest in baseball surfaced (I attended Dodger Fantasy Camp years ago), for months, I heard about foul balls, curve balls, home runs and balks until I could hardly stand it. Also, I am a little embarrassed for people to know about the frivolous ways I spend leisure time, and I don’t want people to think that I ever do anything other than work. Litigants (and lawyers) waiting for decisions don’t like to read about how their judge goofs off. Additionally, my out-of- office interests could be charitably described as eclectic, but perhaps more honestly could be labeled trivial and schizophrenic.

My wife and I enjoy attending live concerts, mostly rock and pop bands-the list of performers that we have seen is too long to remember but a few examples will demonstrate the variety of our interests: The Rolling Stones, Nancy Griffith, Judy Collins, Chris Isaak, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Still, Nash and Young (and the various combinations that tour), Sarah McLachlan, the Nevilles (brothers, sisters, cousins, etc.), Emmy Lou Harris, The Eagles, Phil Collins, The Chieftains, Paul Simon, James Taylor, etc. etc. Actually, we have probably seen the Chieftains about 10 times (attributable to my Irish heritage, I suppose), and I may be the only federal judge who has ever been to a back stage party with the Chieftains.

There are few types of music that I don’t like (I have no ear for rap or hip hop) but I am strictly a recreational listener. I know nothing about music, except what I like.

We enjoy traveling, especially when it combines several of our interests. For example, a great trip for us was to attend Jazz Fest in New Orleans in the Spring. This is my wife’s home town, and her best friend still lives there. Plus, Jazz Fest is a great eating and music venue. I describe it as like being in college again, except we now have enough money to buy things. We hope that all of New Orleans can make it back after the recent devastating body punches from nature.

I enjoy a variety of sports. I run, bike and cross country ski, depending on the season, but solely for recreation and fitness at this point. I used to run in 5 and 10k races, and have completed several mini-marathons, and one marathon, but that was years and about 30 pounds ago. I confess to have wasted more than a few hours on golf courses in recent years, but my great hope is that I will find a cure for that nasty habit soon. As a spectator, I enjoy professional golf and baseball and college basketball.

I also enjoy reading and watching movies. I suppose that my tastes would be described as very wide but not very deep. I enjoy novels especially. Some of my favorite authors are Scott Turow, John Irving, Susan Isaacs, Elmore Leonard, Larry McMurtry, Carl Hiaasen and Nelson DeMille. There are many others but I won’t bore your readers with a catalogue. I do want to mention three books that I especially enjoyed which may demonstrate the variety of things I read for pleasure: “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers-I think he is one of the great new writers; Dennis Lehane (author of Mystic River-which is good) also wrote “Shutter Island” which is one of the best mysteries I have ever read (If you figure out what is going on in this book before the ending, you are very clever;) finally, Nelson DeMille’s “The Gold Coast” should be in the pantheon of great books about the Mafia.

I especially enjoy the sort of off-beat, small movies that have a different perspective, for example, here are some of the movies that would make my top hundred list: Memento, Being John Malkovich, Say Anything, Sideways, Body Heat, I (heart) Huckabees, Raising Arizona, the Man Who Wasn’t There (and I suppose about anything by the Coen brothers.) If your readers really want a sophisticated assessment of films, they should contact Indianapolis attorney Robert Hammerle (317.630.0137.) He is central Indiana’s self styled leading authority on movies.

I also occasionally watch television but my viewing has diminished greatly with the demise of the sitcom. Through the years, I have been a fan of Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Wings, Sports Night, Seinfeld and a few others. I have no interest in the so-called reality shows. Lately, about all I watch are certain HBO series (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Curb Your Enthusiasm), Keith Olbermann’s Countdown on MSNBC and, of course, the Golf Channel.

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