Judge Teresa Harper’s Quaker ideals have guided her not only personally but also professionally.
She grew up in Plainfield, Indiana, a historically Quaker community. While her family wasn’t Quaker, the overall culture in the community was, she said.
Quaker philosophy has long opposed capital punishment. For much of her career, Harper defended people sentenced to death and trained other attorneys on best practices for capital cases.
Harper, 66, is retiring this year from the Monroe County Circuit Court after 12 years.
Previously, she spent 10 years as an Indiana State public defender, working in both appellate cases and capital post-conviction relief cases, where she was the last line of defense for those sentenced to death.
After being convicted of a crime, sentenced to death and losing their first appeal, a defendant is able to file for post-conviction relief, like a second appeal. Unless the governor commutes their sentence, this is their last chance.
“That’s when the stakes are the highest,” Harper said.
Before becoming a defense attorney, and eventually a judge, Harper studied psychology at IU-Purdue University Indianapolis and worked with abused and neglected children as a social worker in Marion County.
Harper said she has always strived to be of service to others, an ideal that played a role in her decision to go to law school.
In 1982, the year Harper graduated law school, women made up 38 percent of incoming law students. In 2017, it was 52 percent.
Two years before Harper was born, in 1950, Plainfield native Virginia Dill McCarty graduated from the IU law school in Indianapolis. She was the only woman and graduated top of her class. Despite this, no law firm would hire her, because of her gender.
McCarty went on to become a pioneer for women in law and government. The progress she and other women, like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have made since then isn’t lost on Harper, she said.
During her time at McKinney School of Law at IUPUI, Harper clerked for the then-chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, Richard Givan, and continued after she graduated.
She was the first woman to ever clerk for him, Harper said. Colleagues referred to her as “the girl clerk.”
Tom Frohman, 64, an attorney at Indiana Legal Services, said he first heard of Harper as a highly sought-after defense attorney.
When he met her years later on the Indiana Public Defender Council, Frohman said he was struck by her genuine commitment to the idea of justice for all, a value often discussed but not always upheld.
“It was clear to me that that was a really important part of her character," he said. "When she was elected judge, it was like Monroe County had hit the jackpot."
In the late 1990s, after working as a public defender and a director of training programs for other public defenders, Harper moved from Indianapolis to Bloomington “for an entirely impulsive and personal reason,” she said.
Her lifelong best friend had two young daughters and had to go back to work full-time to support her family when her husband became extremely ill. Harper moved to Bloomington to be closer to them and support her friend.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” she said.
While she made Bloomington her home, Harper continued to work as a training director for various organizations, providing education for attorneys on defense and capital cases. This meant regularly traveling around the state and country.
Harper decided to run for judge in 2006 because she wanted a chance to serve her immediate community in Bloomington, she said.
“I get the sense that she punishes where punishment is due, but from the bottom of her heart she wants people to succeed and tries to reach a result that allows for that,” Frohman said.
Her time on the bench has allowed her to learn about and appreciate the diversity of our country, as she’s had opportunities to meet and work with people she might not otherwise, Harper said.
“It’s taught me that the world and the people in it are a lot bigger than me,” she said.
In retirement, Harper will continue teaching a course in IU’s criminal justice department, "CJUS-P 415 Crime and Madness." She also plans to audit classes at IU but is looking forward to having more free time, she said.
Free-time she will happily spend with her dachshund, Waldo.
Harper adopted Waldo from a shelter eight years ago, and said she doesn’t know what she would do without him. When she adopted him, he hardly had any hair and she could see every rib, she said, but he’s grown into a healthy, loving animal.
Harper’s friend and colleague Marla Sandys, a criminal justice professor at IU, said when the two friends get together to catch up, usually at the Uptown Cafe, they love to swap dog stories. Sandys has a Belgian Malinois named Sammy.
In addition, Harper said she loves gardening, landscaping and traveling. She’s visited Crete, Greece, several times and hopes to return there, as well as spots around the U.S.
“I’m going to take this slow, Harper said. “Frequently, I think I’ve lived my life too quickly, so I’m going to live slow.”
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