Mark Massa was a law student working as a speechwriter for a Republican governor when he got his first up-close look at how politics and the courts can intersect.
It was 1988 and Republicans were challenging whether the Democratic candidate for governor met the residency requirements to be on the ballot. The case went to the Indiana Supreme Court, where four of the five justices were Republicans.
In a unanimous decision written by a young Republican chief justice, the court defied partisan expectations and ruled for the Democrat. The decision kept Evan Bayh on the ballot and cleared the way for his two terms as governor.
It also taught Massa, now 51, a critical lesson he takes with him as he becomes the newest member of the Indiana Supreme Court.
“It vindicated the rule of law and set a great example going forward,” Massa said. “It was one that was not lost on me.”
Today Massa will take the oath to become the state’s 107th justice. He’ll be sworn in by the man he’s replacing on the court: Former Chief Justice Randall Shepard — the author of that 1988 decision in the Bayh case.
Massa hopes he can model the retired justice. He called Shepard the “the kindest man in public service.” He also notes the national accolades the retired chief justice won for modernizing the state’s antiquated courts and making them more much accessible to the public.
“That’s why we’re put here,” Massa said. “To leave things better than we found them.”
With the court appointment, he returns to a familiar place. A graduate of Indiana University’s journalism and law schools, Massa took his first Statehouse job at 24 as a speechwriter for Gov. Robert Orr. He’d return again to the Statehouse to be Shepard’s law clerk in the early 1990s. Two decades later, after a career spent mostly as a prosecutor, he’d come back to spend four years as general counsel to Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Massa was one of three attorneys — two men and a woman — selected by a judicial nominating commission tasked with vetting Supreme Court candidates to replace Shepard. When Daniels picked Massa, it created a small furor: It was the second time Daniels filled a vacant spot on the all-male court with a man.
Colleagues of Massa say he’s a stellar choice. In letters of support they wrote to the nominating commission, they cited his breadth of experience as a litigator and administrator. They noted tough cases he took on as a state and federal prosecutor, including going after police officers who’d gone bad.
Eight Marion County judges (including two women) signed a joint letter that said: “In a field of many qualified applicants, we cannot imagine a better, more experienced, more well-rounded and prepared candidate to succeed Justice Shepard …”
Former U.S. Attorney Susan Brooks, for whom Massa worked as a federal prosecutor, wrote that Massa has a “judicial temperament that will serve the citizens of Indiana for years to come.”
As a new justice, Massa can’t talk about the legal issues that may come in front of the court. But his answers to questions put to him by the judicial nominating commission offer some insight.
When asked, for example, to name some of the “significant legal matters” entrusted to him, he listed capital murder cases he’s prosecuted and the legal counsel he gave to Daniels on the last-chance clemency petitions filed by death row inmates.
But he also cited a case he handled when he was in private practice involving an overzealous prosecutor who’d targeted an innocent woman in a homicide case. The woman was eventually exonerated, but the ordeal was taxing. Massa called it “a sobering lesson in prosecutorial discretion” and a reminder that the state needed to wield its power “carefully, responsibly, fairly and impartially.”
The first call Massa made after he learned he’d been named to the high court was to his parents. His father is a retired newspaper executive who’d watched the U.S. Senate’s Watergate hearings on TV with his then-12-year-old son. Massa’s father had voted for the president eventually brought down by those hearings, but told his son the rule of law had prevailed.
“That,” said Massa, “was a very important lesson to watch unfold.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com.