Hon. Judge John Baker: His Life Before, During and After the Bench

March 2020

Writer // Janelle Morrison            Photography // Laura Arick and submitted

Hon. Judge John Baker

Representing Indiana’s 1st District as a member of the Court of Appeals, Judge John G. Baker—at present—is the longest-serving judge in the state of Indiana. Judge Baker—a Zionsville resident—recently announced that he will be retiring from the Court of Appeals at the end of this coming July. It has been said that Judge Baker “retires as the most prolific opinion writer in the history of the state’s appellate courts.”

To that end, we decided to take a look back upon Judge Baker’s career that spans over four decades and celebrate the work of this extraordinary man. We sat down with Judge Baker to discuss his remarkable career and how he and his wife, Peggy, plan on spending their time going forward.

The Development of an Iconic Judge

A southern Indiana native, Judge Baker grew up in Aurora, Indiana, along the Ohio River. He graduated from Culver Military Academy and attended Indiana University, where he earned a B.A. in history in 1968 and his Juris Doctor degree (J.D.) from Indiana University School of Law in 1971.

Judge Baker received his LLM from the University of Virginia in 1995 and is a member of the American, Indiana State, Monroe County, Boone County and Indianapolis Bar associations. He served on the Indiana Judges’ Association Board of Managers from 1979 through 2011 and was its president from January 1987 through June 1989.

Judge Baker was also a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves.

“I went to college during the Vietnam War and joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps [ROTC],” Baker shared. “I had gone to military school for high school [Culver Military Academy], so I knew how to march and all the other stuff, so I was very comfortable with that and did very well. I ended up being the brigade commander of the ROTC units in Bloomington.”

After fulfilling his required military service, he practiced law in Bloomington as a partner in Baker, Barnhart and Andrews, and later served for 13.5 years as judge of Monroe County and Monroe Superior Courts. In that time, he disposed of more than 15,000 cases and developed a reputation for being a highly respected judge throughout his community.

“When I joined the judiciary in Monroe County in 1976, I was the fourth judge,” Judge Baker said. “Today, they have nine [judges]. That’s how busy they are, and we were that busy then. We [my colleagues and I] were young, and we worked literally day and night.”

Judge Baker paused and then with a knowing smile, he said, “I couldn’t possibly do it today. It makes me tired thinking about it. We had to do all the traffic court and all the misdemeanors. And since it was Bloomington, we had the world’s greatest college weekend along with the world’s greatest arraignment [period] known as the ‘Little 500.’”

What Has Changed in the Judiciary Over the Last 40-Plus Years

When asked to share what changes Judge Baker has witnessed over his career, he replied, “Two of my colleagues retired last year. One of them had been on the bench for 40 years and the other for 38 [years]. I’m leaving with 44 plus behind me, and there has been a lot of change.”

Judge Baker continued, “When I started as a judge in 1976, I got to meet the first woman who ever sat as judge in Indiana as general jurisdiction court, and when I joined the Court of Appeals, she was also serving on the Court of Appeals, as was another woman who was the first woman Circuit Court judge in Indiana. Today, two out of five of my court are women. I served on the Court of Appeals when the first woman was selected on the Supreme Court of Indiana, when the first African American was selected on the Supreme Court and when the first African American joined our court. And when I first the joined the court here, opinions were typed with [IBM] Selectric typewriters.”

According to Judge Baker, the government was rather slow in bringing computers to the judiciary.

“I used to say Don Marsh would find out within 15 seconds what kind of peas I bought, but I couldn’t find out what was going on in the courtroom next to me or in the county next to me,” Judge Baker quipped. “The professionalism of the judiciary is something that happened during my time frame. The judgeships were just judicial silos, and there wasn’t a lot of conversation, but today, there’s much more communication and courts are not only adjudicating matters but serving as a kind of ‘emergency room’ of society and are trying to be therapeutic. We have drug courts, family courts, mental health courts and veterans’ courts; problem-solving courts that didn’t exist when I began as one of the first small claims judges in Indiana.”

The Most Senior Member of the State’s Judiciary

Judge Baker was named to the Court of Appeals in 1989 and is the longest-serving member on the current court. He was retained on the Court of Appeals by election in 1992, 2002 and 2012 and served as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals from 2007–2010. Judge Baker has authored approximately 5,500 written opinions.

Hon. Judge John Baker

“The Court of Appeals is made up of 15 judges,” Judge Baker explained. “Many of us were trial judges before, and some came straight from the practice of law. We represent different law schools, different [political parties], backgrounds and faiths, but we agree more often than you could ever imagine. We’re all different, but we’re all Hoosiers.”

Appeals on Wheels

Judge Baker spearheaded an initiative—Appeals on Wheels program—which has taken the court to every county in Indiana to conduct live oral arguments before high schools, colleges and civic groups.

“We [Court of Appeals] initiated the program in 2001,” Judge Baker said. “We got to the 92nd county last year, so we’ve been to every county in the state in the last 20 years. Appeals on Wheels has given us an opportunity to go out and for kids to see what we do and what we don’t do. I really enjoy the outreach idea of it. I came to realize that it’s not enough just to decide cases. It is also important to serve as a mentor to so many and in many different capacities. Quite frankly, that’s going to be my legacy.”

Beyond the Bench and Gavel

Judge Baker and his wife of nearly 22 years, Peggy, have six children and 11 grandchildren, all of which are excited to spend more time with him. He is active in his church—St. Luke’s United Methodist Church—and the Boy Scouts of America, where he attained the rank of Eagle Scout as a youth. In 2011, he joined the Board of Trustees of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, where he serves on the Academic Affairs Committee. Judge Baker is also an avid reader, rower and Nordic walker.

Hon. Judge John Baker
Hon. Judge John Baker and his wife, Peggy.

When asked who will fill his vacancy and what he will miss the most about being a judge, he said, “My vacancy will be filled from one of the 53 counties within the 1st District,” Judge Baker explained. “I am going to miss the people the most, my colleagues, my staff, the lawyers, and interacting with students, but it’s a different time, and, frankly, it’s somebody else’s turn.”