Judge John Baker ’64 says he stays engaged with Culver Academies, including bringing an Indiana Court of Appeals hearing to campus recently so students could attend, because the school made such a difference in his life.
“Culver means a lot to me because it did so much for me,” Baker said. “So when I can share that experience with the students, I'd be remiss not to.”
Baker has been a contributing alumnus to Culver for years. He first brought a traveling Court of Appeals hearing, or Appeals on Wheels as it is known, to Culver in 2001 as part of the court’s centennial celebration. He’s brought it back five times.
Baker, who was the longest-serving judge in Indiana when he retired as a full-time judge in 2020, continues to hear cases as a senior judge.
The case heard in Legion Memorial Building was held before a standing-room-only crowd of about 200 people, most of them students. Baker was impressed by the turnout, saying he told his two fellow judges he expected 60 to 70 students.
“We like to play before a big crowd because the more young people who get to see it, the better,” Baker said.
The case involved a man appealing his methamphetamine possession conviction, arguing his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure were violated by a nurse who found a tennis ball-size suspicious substance in his pants pocket.
During the hearing, Baker asked questions to help students understand what was going on. When Deputy Attorney General Sierra Murray mentioned SCOTUS, Baker stopped her and asked her to explain that meant the Supreme Court of the United States.
The three judges asked Murray and defense attorney Donald Swanson about the facts of the case and the applicable laws, particularly about why the nurse had searched the clothing.
After the 40-minute hearing, the judges answered questions from students, with the understanding they couldn’t comment on the case they just heard. The judges were asked about how judges are selected, whether judges need to be lawyers, what happens when state and federal laws conflict and what a judge does when they don’t know the exact law.
The first question a student asked was how judges can consider a case without biases. Baker said judges know they have biases, “it’s what we do with them.”
“Over the years of trying to do this, you get a little bit better at that,” he said.
Judge Patricia Riley explained that judges depend on previous court decisions to make rulings.
“We apply the facts of this case to what’s happened before. We’re bound to precedent,” she said. “If we do disagree with the precedent, we have to say why we think that case does not apply. That’s part of the rule of law.”
A student asked how one goes about becoming a judge.
Baker told the students he was a lawyer in Bloomington when a local judge asked him to take a year off from his practice to serve as a judge.
“That was 48 years ago,” he said. “I forgot to go back.”
The judges also were asked how they manage to get along with another judge when they disagree on a case. Judge Rudolph Pyle III, who is married to CGA alumna Kelly Kinkade ’04, said the key is to never let a case become personal.
“Any of the cases that we review, two people can have two different reasonable points of view. If you respect that process, it’s easy not to get personal,” he said.
Baker said during an interview that attending Culver, which has students from all over the country and world, helped him learn to get along with people he disagrees with. He said it is a skill that served him well as an appeals court judge.
“The opinions that I write don't necessarily express only my thoughts, but our thoughts. So I might have to leave a paragraph out in order to get his vote or I might have to change this paragraph or this sentence in order to get your vote. But I think we do that in every aspect of life, not just the judiciary,” he said.
A student also asked the judges if they ever had to make a decision that went against their “moral compass.” The judges said they know they must follow the law.
“Candidly, the wheels would come off if we just did what we wanted to do,” Baker said. “We have to do what the law requires us to do, otherwise you don’t have the rule of law.”
In an interview the next day, Baker talks about being a student at Culver. He came to Culver as a “half striper,” meaning he arrived in the middle of his freshman year. He said he decided to transfer to Culver because the school in his hometown of Aurora, a small town in southeast Indiana near Cincinnati, wasn’t challenging enough. But he said he didn’t do well on the entrance exam to Culver because his reading and writing skills were deficient.
“So I was admitted on the condition I take remedial reading and other courses to rectify my deficiencies. The irony, of course, is now I make a living writing and reading,” he said. “So Culver prepared me well for that.”
Baker said one of the biggest things Culver did for him was to teach him to handle stress. He said students learn to deal with stress at Culver because the academics are so rigorous and there are so many demands on time.
“One of the things we learned was how to maintain our physical health, our mental health, our spiritual health. All of those things are important, and I thought the academy helped prepare me in that regard more than I might have otherwise been,” he said.
He talked glowingly about some of his Culver teachers. He recalled John Edgell, a company counselor and English teacher “who was just straight out of central casting from an Ivy League school – tweed coat, knit tie, beautiful hair. No nonsense.”
Baker said longtime Latin instructor John Roos taught “what was considered to be a dead language and he brought it to life.”
He also remembered English instructor Arthur Hughes, who also was an avid “thespian.” “I can still remember to this day when he hopped up on his desk and started a soliloquy,” Baker said.
He also recalled that Hughes had students write letters to themselves predicting where they would be in five, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years. Baker said Hughes mailed the letters to the students in the corresponding years, and his widow, Barbara, continued that after Hughes died in 1973.
“To get a letter from yourself 25 years later was pretty powerful,” he said. “He made us think deeply.”
He said Culver prepared him well for his career.
“Culver not only taught you things, it taught you how to learn,” he said. “There were so many great teachers.”