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Heath ready for new role

Heath

Judge Dan Heath soon will be in charge of a school, and he’s been doing a lot of homework.

When he transfers from the Civil Division of the Allen Superior Court to the Family Division, he will be moving from the Courthouse to the Allen County Juvenile Center. Geographically, the distance is just two miles, but from a legal perspective it is much farther.

Heath will be hearing cases covering a significantly different area of the law from the business tort, medical malpractice, personal injury, estate and other civil claims he hears now. Heath will be ultimately responsible for the Juvenile Center, including its important education component as well as juvenile probation officers, confinement officers, two magistrates and a host of other duties.

Another big difference: In civil court, most of the judge’s work involves analyzing legal briefs and writing orders and decisions. In Family Court, he will spend much time conducting hearings on the bench.

But more than a month before he assumes the seat that Judge Stephen Sims is vacating, it’s clear Heath has been doing research. He will tell you that the juvenile center has 164 employees and 140 beds for detainees. Its budget is nearly $9 million. The constitutional rights of juveniles to be protected behind bars are even stronger than for adults. He has already made plans to attend a weeklong seminar on juvenile and family court law.

“I’ve been reading tons of stuff,” he says.

Path to judgeship

Heath didn’t intend on being a judge. He worked in banking and is a graduate of the FBI academy. He ran Sen. Dan Coats’ local office when Coats was a U.S. representative, and was the Republican candidate for that office in a special election called when Coats moved to the Senate in 1989. After losing in that race to Democrat Jill Long, he was elected to the County Council. Then in private legal practice, Heath decided to run for a judgeship in 1996 when he became unhappy with the way his predecessor treated an opposing attorney in court.

“So I ran and won, and I have just loved it. I’m glad I ran.”

After Sims announced his pending retirement, Heath decided that at age 60, if he was going to change directions, now was the time. So he decided to transfer to Family Court. Heath also knew something about the center from a different perspective: His wife, Patty, had taught there.

The judge also likes the mix of roles for the Family Division seat. Rather than simply decide cases and rule on motions, the job will also be part manager, part policy-maker and part representative of the court and the center before the County Council and other government panels.

And Sims thinks Heath’s background in government and politics will help as Heath seeks approval of the ACJC budget and deals with other Family Court needs. “There’s an entirely different skill set that many judges don’t have,” Sims said.

Visibility

Heath has been no stranger to controversial cases. He has issued key rulings on Smith Field and on the city’s smoking ordinance.

Heath also takes pride in his record as a civil judge. Higher courts have upheld him on appeal in 90 percent of cases, compared with the average of 65 percent. He reduced the waiting time for a trial from three years to 11 months. Rulings and orders are issued in a timely fashion.

Still, after being in the news as a congressional candidate and County Council member, Heath was less visible as a civil court judge, but that didn’t mean he was working less.

“People have a big misunderstanding of civil court. We’re rarely on the bench,” Heath said. “We do a lot of reading. … We work extremely hard.”

For some local residents, familiarity with Heath has less to do with the law than with his sideline – singing. Heath appears periodically at some of the city’s night spots and at fundraisers, singing Sinatra-style songs backed up some of the city’s better musicians.

Just as he did not plan on becoming a judge, he entered the city’s music scene almost by accident. After recording a song for his wife, he set out to make a better recording at Sweetwater Sound and there met several musicians he later performed with.

“I’ve have had a lot of fun with it,” Heath said. “I’ve met a lot of fascinating people.”

Tracy Warner, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 1981. He can be reached at 461-8113 or by email, twarner@jg.net.

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