After losing her job, Tashanna Sowell began selling food on the corner of 30th Street and North Sherman Drive in Indianapolis to avoid eviction from her apartment. (photo/Abriana Herron)

The following report was written for The Indiana Citizen by Indianapolis journalist Abriana Herron.

July 28, 2023

Sitting in the Lawrence Township small claims courtroom May 31, Cresencia Bronson was nervous.

The 49-year-old Indianapolis resident had been in courtrooms before, but this was the first time she would be appearing before a judge for an eviction. Rent on her one-bedroom, one-bath apartment had increased to $1,035 in five years, and Bronson, juggling multiple bills, had found herself “falling behind.”

However, watching Judge Kimberly Bacon show compassion and understanding toward each individual eased Bronson’s fears.

“I feel like she made us feel comfortable,” Bronson said.

Given two weeks to pay her overdue balance, Bronson was glad to have had a good experience in Bacon’s courtroom. Outside of that courtroom, though, she doesn’t trust the judiciary to provide justice.

National polling shows an increasing number of Americans share Bronson’s view. According to the 2022 State of the State Courts survey conducted by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), people’s confidence in both federal and state court systems has plunged.

In the last year, confidence in the federal court system has dropped by 10 percentage points, while the confidence in state court systems fell by 4 percentage points.

There was a decline in most of the positive attributes associated with the judiciary, such as “hard working” and “providing equal justice to all,” according to the NCSC’s polling report. It also noted a “concerning” decrease of 14 percentage points since 2019 in the public’s faith in state courts being unbiased.

Bacon has served as Lawrence Township’s small claims court judge for the past nine years, and while she said she can’t speak on behalf of everyday Hoosiers, she hopes they have confidence in Indiana’s court system because the courts are here to help.

“I hope that they trust in the judiciary because we are public servants and we are attempting to help people problem solve through the administration of justice,” she said. “That is every judge’s goal: to administer justice properly.”

Tashanna Sowell, a single mother of three, said she has little trust that justice will be served with the state’s current judicial system.

Sitting before Bacon, she was told she had two weeks to pay the outstanding balance accrued at her apartment complex to avoid eviction.

“It’s senseless,” Sowell said after her hearing. “All of it is a set up. Where’s the justice at?”

Driving her child to medical appointments for a broken arm, Sowell said she lost her job. As the father of her youngest child was recently convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison, she said she has to do everything on her own.

Now, the 38-year-old is resorting to selling $5 sandwiches at the corner of 30th Street and Sherman Drive in Indianapolis to make money.

By doing so, Sowell was able to pay her overdue balance, catch up on her rent and stay at her apartment. She continues to sell food at the corner.

‘Dial down the temperature’

The NCSC poll is not alone in noting the public’s plummeting confidence in federal courts. A 2022 Gallup poll also found only 25% of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the U.S. Supreme Court. Comparatively, between 1973 and 2006, Gallup found an average of 47% of U.S. adults were confident in the nation’s highest court.

In a 2022 Judicature article, “Losing Faith: Why Public Trust in the Judiciary Matters,” several U.S. Appeals Court judges were interviewed about their opinions on the public’s trust in the judicial system. Among those jurists was Diane P. Wood, senior judge with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which serves Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Wood linked the public’s declining trust to increasingly bitter battles over the selection of federal judges.

“I would say the primary place they learn about the (U.S.) Supreme Court is in the confirmation process,” Wood said. “And the confirmation process is portrayed, in the press at least, as this grand fight between … liberals and conservatives, and who’s going to get this preordained result.”

If there was some way to “dial down the temperature on the confirmation process” and start thinking about who will be a “good judge” rather than one side winning or losing, she said the public might have more faith in courts and judges.

Wood also said the job of a judge can be challenging, especially for Supreme Court justices.

“We have asked this institution of nine human beings to somehow cope with these extraordinarily eventful and consequential cases,” Wood said. “It’s a little unfair of us then to turn around and say, ‘Oh, now you’re being partisan,’ because we’ve asked them to do exactly that. We’ve asked them to take these extraordinarily difficult cases.”

How Indiana’s judiciary holds itself accountable

Having confidence in the judicial process is important, Indiana Supreme Court Justice Derek Molter said. He believes Hoosiers have faith in Indiana’s judiciary.

“People may disagree with the outcome of a case, but generally, when they’re following closely to the process here in Indiana, they are satisfied and respectful of the process that followed,” he said.

Molter also said a lot of the attention and discussion seems to be centered around the federal judicial system, but around 95% of cases nationally are filed in state courts.

“It is really the state court system where most justice is dispensed,” he said.

To those who are worried about justice being served in the state, Molter invited Hoosiers to come and watch a court proceeding. The public can observe many Indiana court proceedings either in person or online. There are also archived court recordings for people to review.

Most local courts are open to the public in a variety of ways because courts began using videoconference tools during the pandemic.

“I think the more people interact with our judiciary, the more they watch it up close and in person, I think their satisfaction rises along with their faith and trust,” Molter said.

The Indiana Supreme Court also created a Commission on Equity and Access in the Court System to grow public trust and confidence in Indiana’s courts and hold its judiciary accountable. In December 2022, the commission released a report that reviews the state’s strengths and weaknesses in order to “achieve greater and equal justice.”

When citizens trust in the judiciary, it builds stronger communities, Bacon said. That’s why she is intentional about helping people have a good experience in court.

“As for the small claims court, this may be the only court people come in contact with,” she said. “So it is very important for me that they see justice at work and interact with them and they feel like they had their day in court,” she said.

One good court experience could build people’s confidence in other court proceedings and the judiciary, Bacon said.

Attorney Angel Marks, a public defender for several towns in southeastern Indiana, estimated about 90% of the people in her area do not trust the local judiciary.

In small towns where everyone knows everyone, it is hard for judges to not seem biased, Marks said.

“Everything is honestly guilty until proven innocent,” she said.

There are great judges in these towns, Marks said, but she believes there needs to be a third-party watchdog system to hold all judges accountable.

Marks spoke about the need for a lawyer-run nonprofit organization—that’s not affiliated with any local judges—where the public could share their questions and concerns about legal proceedings and the judiciary in their area. The watchdog system would not only be a place to confide in lawyers for help, it would be a free service that educates the public on its rights.

When it comes to holding the judiciary accountable, the NCSC poll found that a checks-and-balances system was more compelling to the public than transparency. A system that holds itself accountable “through judicial review, adherence to an ethical code, and trial by jury does more to reinforce trust in the courts than measures of public transparency.”

Ultimately, Bronson said the responsibility of increasing public confidence in the state court system falls on judges. How judges handle each case as well as their demeanor toward the public are imperative to building trust, transparency and confidence with the public.

“Sometimes, I feel like a judge uses their power to an advantage and doesn’t have any kind of compassion or anything,” she said. “Have more compassion, more understanding and more patience. You are still human up under that robe.”

Abriana Herron is a 2022 journalism graduate of the Indiana University Media School. She recently was a Report for America corps member and reporter at the Indianapolis Recorder. Her work for The Indiana Citizen Racial Justice Reporting Project is supported through the Herbert Simon Family Foundation.

Contact The Indiana Citizen interim editor Marilyn Odendahl with any questions about this article.

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