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L.G. v. S.L.

Supreme Court of Indiana

January 19, 2018

L.G., Appellant (Respondent below),
v.
S.L., et al., Appellee (Petitioners below).

          Appeal from the Hamilton Superior Court, No. 29D01-1511-AD-1454 The Honorable Steven R. Nation, Judge

         On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 29A04-1607-AD-1756.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT John S. Terry Stephenie K. Gookins Cate, Terry & Gookins, LLC Carmel, Indiana

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES Charles P. Rice Murphy Rice, LLP South Bend, Indiana Bryan H. Babb Bose McKinney & Evans LLP Indianapolis, Indiana ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE, STATE OF INDIANA Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana Thomas M. Fisher Solicitor General of Indiana Elizabeth M. Littlejohn Matthew R. Elliott Deputy Attorneys General Indianapolis, Indiana

          David, Justice.

         In this disputed adoption case, we grant transfer for the limited purpose of vacating the section of the Court of Appeals opinion addressing whether the trial court judge should recuse himself on remand. We hold that a trial court judge is not required to recuse himself from a case solely because counsel for one of the parties served as a professional reference and wrote a recommendation letter in support of a judge's application for another judicial role. We further hold that under the facts and circumstances of this case, the trial court judge is not required to recuse himself on remand. We summarily affirm the remainder of the Court of Appeals opinion and remand for further proceedings. See Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A)(2).

         Facts and Procedural History

         This matter arises out of a contested adoption. In November 2015, S.L. and W.L. (Adoptive Parents) filed a petition for adoption. Putative father, L.G. (Father), had previously filed a paternity action which was consolidated with the adoption proceeding. Father filed several dispositive and other motions and a discovery dispute between the Adoptive Parents and Father ensued.

         Of particular interest to this Court is Father's February 16, 2016 Motion for Recusal of Judge. In this motion, Father requested recusal of the Honorable Steven R. Nation because Judge Nation had applied for appointment to the Indiana Supreme Court, and counsel for Adoptive Parents, Charles Rice, was listed as a professional reference on Judge Nation's application. Indeed, as part of his application, Judge Nation was required to provide the names of three attorneys who had been professional adversaries in the course of his practice or who had litigated substantial cases in his court and "who would be in positions to comment on [his] qualifications for appointment to the Indiana Supreme Court." (Appellant's Supp. App. Vol. II at 8.) Accordingly, Judge Nation designated Adoptive Parents' counsel, Rice, as one of his three references. Additionally, during the pendency of this adoption case, Rice wrote a letter to the Judicial Nominating Commission in which he endorsed Judge Nation's application and described him as "the greatest jurist" he had encountered in his "state-wide" litigation practice. (Appellant's Supp. App. Vol. II at 2.) Rice previously submitted this same letter to the Judicial Nominating Commission in 2012 when Judge Nation also applied to fill a vacancy on the Indiana Supreme Court.

         Father alleged that listing Rice as a reference in the 2016 application gave the appearance of impropriety, necessitating Judge Nation's recusal. Judge Nation denied Father's Motion for Recusal. Thereafter, the case proceeded and the trial court dismissed Father's motion to contest the adoption as a discovery sanction and entered a decree of adoption.

         Father appealed, challenging the dismissal of his motion to contest the adoption. He did not raise the recusal issue. Our Court of Appeals addressed the issues raised by Father related to the dismissal and also addressed, sua sponte, whether Judge Nation should recuse himself on remand. It concluded that: 1) Judge Nation should have granted Father's Motion to Recuse because Rice's recommendation created the appearance of impropriety; and 2) Judge Nation should recuse himself on remand because the trial court's findings and conclusions "demonstrate the court's negative assessment of Father's credibility and character." L.G. v. S.L., 76 N.E.3d 157, 176 (Ind.Ct.App. 2017). The Court of Appeals had "significant concern" that Judge Nation or any trial judge would be able to set aside these prior findings and conclusions. Id. at 177.

         We disagree with the Court of Appeals on the recusal issues and grant transfer to address them. In every other respect, we affirm the Court of Appeals opinion and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

          Standard of Review

         A judge's decision about whether to recuse is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Cheek v. State, 79 N.E.3d 388, 390 (Ind.Ct.App. 2017). An abuse of discretion occurs when the judge's decision is against ...


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