INDIANAPOLIS — A man who has reveled in serving his neighbors as judge in northeast Indiana's rural Wabash County today takes his seat on the highest court in the state.
Justice Christopher Goff, 45, has no problem admitting that he never expected his legal career eventually would find him sitting alongside four colleagues on the elevated bench at the Indiana Supreme Court.
"When I began my career in Huntington, we had a 1986 Dodge Colt, $70 and two kids," Goff said. "If you would have told me then that I would be on the Indiana Supreme Court, I would have told you that you didn't know what you were talking about."
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb last month selected Goff as Indiana's 110th justice following a months-long application and interview process overseen by Chief Justice Loretta Rush and the six other members of the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission.
Goff succeeds Justice Robert Rucker, a Gary native, who retired May 12 after 26 years as a state appellate judge, including nearly 18 years on the Supreme Court.
Blue collar justice
Similar to Rucker, who toiled as a young man in the Region's steel mills, Goff also came to the legal profession from a distinctly blue collar background.
Born in Wabash, the son of a factory maintenance man and a teacher's aide, Goff worked in a magnetics factory to pay his way through Ball State University.
While still a student he married his wife, Raquel, at the Wabash County Courthouse. Following the ceremony, they worked the second shift at the factory.
Goff graduated from Ball State with top honors in 1994 and enrolled in the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University Bloomington, where he completed the three-year program six months early.
He worked as an associate at a Huntington law firm for three years and then became a partner there.
In 2005, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels selected Goff, who he had never met, to fill a judicial vacancy in Goff's hometown.
"I was humbled by the confidence placed in me by Gov. Daniels. He did not have to take a chance on me, but the fact that he did made me resolve to prove him right," Goff said.
"It also gave me the courage to look for the untapped potential in those struggling people who come before me on a daily basis. They all have within them the spark of the divine, and that fact must be remembered when their fate is in your hands."
Wabash County voters elected the Republican to the bench in 2008 and again in 2014.
'People, not problems'
As a small-town lawyer — Wabash has 10,253 residents; Wabash County, 33,000 — Goff focused on domestic relations and criminal cases, though he also took on collections, wills and estates, personal injury and business lawsuits.
He said having a diversified practice proved invaluable when he became the sole superior court judge for the county.
"Small town practice in Indiana can be very rewarding. You get to be 'Atticus Finch' and there is nothing like it," Goff said, referring to the beloved attorney in the Harper Lee novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"My clients were people, not problems. It is gratifying and humbling to know that your efforts and abilities are all that stand between your client and injustice."
But working as a lawyer in the town where you grew up also has its challenges, as Goff learned when he was hired to advocate for a sentence modification on behalf of a high school classmate who was convicted of murder at age 18 and ordered to serve 60 years in prison.
"I had a difficult time wrapping my head around his fate. He had been a better kid than me," Goff said. "I could not accept that someone with so much promise should be effectively thrown away.
"His crime and his punishment were my motivation for becoming a lawyer."
Goff was unsuccessful at reducing the man's jail term. But Goff said the case changed his view of criminal litigants and led him as a judge to establish problem-solving courts for Wabash County.
"My classmate taught me that good people can do evil things. My work with problem-solving courts has largely been an effort to help people never get to such a desperate point in life," Goff said.
"All people are endowed with inherent dignity and worth. If our legal system is to be respected, then we must treat all people accordingly."
The next adventure
Goff describes his legal philosophy as "originalist" and "textualist" when interpreting the Constitution, but declared that his overriding goal as a justice is to maintain the tradition of consensus that has distinguished the Indiana Supreme Court.
"I believe in collaboration, and I think that judicial decisions are best received if everybody can get behind them," Goff said.
He certainly has experience organizing and coordinating large groups of people.
His wife is the 11th of 12 children of a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Durango, Mexico, and together they have four children and one grandchild.
"We typically host holiday parties in our home for as many as 100 family members. This is impressive when you consider that we live in a 2,000-square-foot ranch home," Goff said. "I am proud of my family and its unique heritage."
In fact, the first thing Goff did at the governor's event announcing his selection was to ask his family to stand beside him as he enthusiastically introduced them.
Goff then confessed that he was humbled by the prospect of succeeding Rucker — "one of the greatest jurists in the history of our great state" — and at serving on Indiana's highest court.
"The weight and responsibility of this role certainly are not lost on me," Goff said. "I can only hope that, in time, through humility, hard work and a lot of help from others, my service on the court will help make Indiana an even greater place than it already is."
Hoosier voters will decide at the 2020 general election whether to retain Goff for a 10-year term.