By Ciara Smith, Gary Crusader
“His body of work stands as a powerful illustration of the guidance courts provide for the peaceful resolution of disputes encompassing nearly every facet of Hoosier life,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush said in her annual State of the Judiciary address.
These words were in tribute to the career of Justice Robert Rucker, Indiana’s 105th Supreme Court justice, who returned to Gary a hometown hero on March 9.
Justice Rucker returned to his alma mater, Roosevelt High School, to celebrate his retirement after 26 years of serving on the state’s highest court. He was joined by other notable Northwest Indiana natives Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, as he gave one of his final arguments in front of 300 students.
Justice Mark Massa called him “one of the greatest figures in the history of the state of Indiana.”
Judge Rucker was appointed to the Court of Appeals, as its first African American judge, in 1991, followed by his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1999.
During his tenure, he served with eight other judges, and authored over a thousand criminal and civil opinions, his 2007 opinion in Anglemyer v. State being cited more than 7,000 times across the country, to clarify Indiana sentencing laws. He holds a coveted spot in the American Law Institute and the longest tenure of any present court justice.
After graduating from Roosevelt High school and working for some time in the steel mill, Rucker enrolled at Indiana University Northwest in 1964. He was later drafted to enter the Vietnam War, and received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service.
“It was no way for me to anticipate ever really becoming a lawyer. I’m from a working class family. My dad drove a taxicab, and worked part time in the mill, and my mom was a domestic. I didn’t know any lawyers, didn’t know any professionals,” Justice Rucker said in an interview. “To even think about becoming a lawyer was not something that was in my contemplation. And certainly not to become a justice on the Indiana Supreme Court. I had no reference point.”
Despite his humble beginnings, Rucker graduated from Valparaiso University in 1976 and spent nearly 15 years as an attorney and deputy prosecutor for the city of Gary.
The local courthouse at 15 W. 4th Avenue was renamed the Robert D. Rucker Courthouse in 2010, after the longest tenured justice.
The 70-year-old plans to step away from his seat formally on May 12, leaving a Supreme Court vacancy that will be filled by Governor Eric Holcomb.