“I always wanted to be somebody but now I realize I should have been more specific.”

Lily Tomlin

A young man had appeared on several occasions in a courtroom in Clark County, Indiana. It seemed he had multiple allegations of some type of petty theft. As the story was told to me, the Honorable Judge Steve Fleece was sitting on the bench that day.

After advising him of his rights and reading the charges filed against the defendant, a young male, the judge had one more thing to add to the proceedings. “Young man, I would advise you to find another profession. You are not very good at this one.”

I will admit I have never verified this story with Judge Fleece. I really have no proof it is really true. But sometimes a story is so good it keeps being repeated.

A rather unpleasant chapter in Clark County has concluded this week. As the end of that story is written it was suggested by another friend who is a magistrate judge that perhaps a public acknowledgement of Senior Judge Steve Fleece for his service to our community during this time could be warranted. Sometimes an idea is so good and so appropriate you hate that you didn’t think of it yourself. So is the genesis of this week’s column.

Steve Fleece is a retired judge who occasionally fills in as a senior judge for short increments of time — often as short as one court day. Senior judges in my opinion, and I know in the opinion of many within the criminal justice and legal system, are essential to the smooth operation of our legal system.

When what turned out to be a bit longer than expected vacancy occurred in Clark Circuit Court 1 presented itself, Steve Fleece was one of the logical choices to fill that vacancy. I know that he agreed to do so, anticipating a certain amount of time. That time ended up being quite a bit longer than he or anyone else could have predicted.

What really makes a judge like Steve Fleece so valuable as a temporary fill-in judge is how he operates when he is on the bench. Sometimes a senior judge will simply take care of the routine advisements and initial hearings and the more difficult cases might be continued until the sitting judge returns. Steve Fleece is not that kind of judge whether it is for a day or a year.

I have spent some part of almost every weekday in a courtroom for eight years. I have been in Judge Fleece’s courtroom upon many occasions when he was senior judge. When he is on the bench, he will address and tackle the case just as if it were his own court. That means legal decisions and justice will not be delayed. That also means when the sitting judge returns to his court, the docket won’t be jammed up any more than most of them already are.

I am also in the envious situation where I consider Judge Fleece and I to be friends. Out of the courtroom, we have spent many hours over the years discussing almost any social, political, or life issue one can imagine. Steve Fleece is one of my friends from over the years who falls into a very special category. Steve Fleece is an intellectual in the true sense of the word. He is well-educated, well-read, and well-studied in many fields. As with any such intellectual type person, he has what I lovingly would refer to as a bit of a quirky personality.

I have always enjoyed our time together, both personally and professionally. I would certainly be amiss not to address something about his fill-in tenure. Judge Fleece had to deal with two specific and very high-profile cases and render some legal juris prudence. In two situations where I knew way more inside baseball than most people in the community, he made what I consider to be two very brave bench decisions.

I cannot imagine how lonely and stressful it must have been to make calls that were probably not going to be very popular. I consider Steve — as I have most every judge I have observed in and out of the courtroom — among people with integrity and courage.

Those of us at the courthouse know of how valuable his service has been over the last few months and appreciate him for it. I hope the community understands that he would have probably much rather been traveling to a historic Civil War battleground with his wife to further enhance his expertise in one of his passions. Instead, he accepted a call to duty to serve Clark County in a time when I think he was the senior judge that Clark County needed.

Knowing Judge Steve Fleece makes him one of the people I have known in my life that equates with two of my life’s most closely held philosophies. The only way to improve your life is to include in your circle of influence people who are smarter, better educated, and more talented than yourself.

The second being simply this: If I am the smartest person in a room full of people, I am probably in the wrong room.

— Lindon Dodd is a freelance writer who can be reached at lindon.dodd@hotmail.com.

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