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Marion County Superior Court Judge Heather Welch will be retiring Feb. 2, 2024, after more than 20 years on the bench. (photo/courtesy of Heather Welch)

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

October 24, 2023

Marion County Superior Court Judge Heather Welch, a judicial leader who is known for carrying a heavy caseload and writing thorough opinions, will be stepping down from the bench in February after serving more than 20 years.

Welch started her legal career in the Marion County Prosecutor’s office then worked for Indiana Attorney General Pam Carter, before moving into private practice. At the age of 34, she became a magistrate judge and was elected as a judge to the Marion County Superior Court in 2006.

She said she never intended to remain in the judiciary until the end of her legal career.

“The time kind of arrived and, after about a year of thinking about things and talking with different people, I decided it was the right decision for me,” Welch said.

Welch will be joining Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services, a national alternative dispute resolution provider. She will serve as a mediator and arbitrator, handling cases in Indiana and other parts of the country.

Retired Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan has been a colleague of Welch’s with both serving in the state judiciary and in national organizations as well as teaching at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. When Welch applied to fill a vacancy on the Court of Appeals of Indiana in 2021, Sullivan wrote a letter of recommendation, describing her as “among the most accomplished and qualified individuals ever to seek appointment” to the appellate court.

Sullivan called attention to Welch’s part in helping transform the judicial system through her work in developing the Indiana commercial courts and, subsequently, being appointed as the first judge of the Marion County Commercial Court , which, Sullivan said, has “quickly become the state’s most preeminent.”

Welch served as presiding judge of the Marion County Superior Court, while the city of Indianapolis was building the $575 million Community Justice Center. She helped the judges plan and prepare for the new courtrooms as well as addressed concerns over the toxins and pollutants at the former industrial site where the CJC was built.

Nationally, Welch served in leadership positions for the National Conference of State Trial Judges and the National Association of Women Judges. Also, she has overseen the American Bar Association’s Judicial Clerkship Program, which provides mentoring for underrepresented law students to encourage them to apply for judicial clerkships.

‘An unusual work ethic’

Sullivan praised Welch’s adjudication of her court cases. She presides over complex litigation and puts in the extra time to write clear, comprehensive opinions, which, he said, “demonstrates an unusual work ethic.”

Among her more recent cases, she has presided over the lawsuit filed against Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita by Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an Indianapolis OB/GYN, and lawsuit claiming Indiana’s near-total abortion ban violates the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Sullivan said a great many lawsuits are closed with a one-sentence judgment, because trial judges are not required to explain their reasoning or conclusions of law when issuing a ruling. But, he continued, these one-liners are unsatisfactory to the litigants and their attorneys. Moreover, if the case is appealed, the Court of Appeals’ judges and Supreme Court justices do not have the benefit of the trial judge’s “eyewitness view on the finding of fact and conclusions of law that led the judge to rule in the way that he or she did.”

“So it is of enormous benefit to people having confidence in their courts, to people’s lawyers and to courts of review, to have a judge who takes her work with the degree of seriousness that Judge Welch does and provides them with a comprehensive explanation of why she has reached the  decision she has,” Sullivan told The Indiana Citizen.

Welch traced her commitment to writing complete judicial rulings and orders to her time handling family law cases as magistrate judge for retired Marion County Superior Court Judge David Dreyer. She said she wanted to explain how she reached those “life-changing decisions” that resulted in things like a parent losing custody of a child.

During her time as a judge, Welch said she has seen how listening to the both and issuing a written ruling will make the parties feel like they were treated fairly and increase their confidence in the judicial system. She gave the example of someone who recognized her on an elevator. Welch said the incident was “a little nerve-racking,” but the individual told her that she had been very fair, even though she had ruled against that individual’s family member.

“You have to give the parties an opportunity to give their side,” Welch said. “In my experience as a judge, it’s so important to give people the opportunity to talk about their case and what they think about it. Sometimes, I think that’s more important that what the final outcome is.”

John Floreancig, general counsel and CEO of Indianapolis Legal Aid Society, remembered his attorneys often appearing before Welch when she heard family law matters.

“She was a fantastic family law judge,” Floreancig said. “She was consistent, you knew what she thought. It was a pleasure to work in her court, because you knew what to expect.”

Valparaiso grad

Welch grew up in a blue-collar home in Kokomo. Her parents, both factory workers, made sure she completed her Saturday chores like mopping the kitchen floor, doing laundry and mowing the lawn, before she joined her friends for an afternoon of fun.

Those rules, she said, coupled with the advice and guidance from her grandfather, who held a Ph.D. degree in engineering, taught her “there is absolutely no replacement ever for hard work.”

Welch decided as an eighth-grader that she wanted to be a lawyer, seeing the profession as one that helped people. After working a few years after completing her bachelor’s degree at Indiana University, Welch enrolled in the now-closed Valparaiso Law School.

“I feel like I was very fortunate to have some really talented people who mentored me and kind of molded me,” Welch said of her time at Valparaiso, mentioning, in particular, professors Rosalie Levinson, Ivan Bodensteiner and now-senior federal judge Jon DeGuilio. “I’m sure I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Sullivan sees the influence of Valparaiso Law School on Welch.

“I think her reputation for integrity and her evenhandedness, her reputation for being fair to both sides, I would say her non-adjudicative commitments to things like diversity and inclusion in the profession all trace to this commitment to ethics and engagement that I thought characterized a Valpo legal education,” Sullivan said.

The Marion County Judicial Selection Committee has begun the process of selecting a new Superior Court judge to fill Welch’s position when she retires on Feb. 2, 2024. Applicants will be interviewed by the committee Dec. 15 and the top three nominees will be sent to Gov. Eric Holcomb who will make the final selection.

Welch said she is excited to begin her work in arbitration and mediation, where she will be able to interact with the parties more than she can, now, as a judge.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to expand my net and learn more and more in a different capacity,” Welch said.

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and IndyStar.com, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

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