Reflecting on the legacy left by Judge Siamas
Published on 12/31/2022
“When people come to court, other than lawyers, I mean, it’s usually a new experience for them,” said Judge Harry Siamas, as we sat across from each other at the defense and prosecutor’s tables in Montgomery’s Circuit Court Room. Indeed, most local residents may never see the inside of this room constructed in 1876. For the past dozen years, Siamas has sat in the black chair behind the original desk, a polished wood desk as imposing and beautiful as the doors into the room.
“It’s obviously changed somewhat,” Siamas said, as we swiveled to look around the room. Indeed there are plastic shields mounted on his bench and the desk for the court reporter, a sign of the pandemic, along with the foot-pump sanitizing stations outside the doors to the court. The sun beamed through the east windows and creates glare on thirteen framed pictures around the room. Siamas had these pictures hung during his tenure on the bench, a clue that he loves history.
Indeed, Siamas told me about the history of the court, founded in 1823, which dovetails with the bicentennial of the county this year. He and the research librarians at Crawfordsville Public Library couldn’t find a picture of the first judge who served, Judge Call, but they found most of the pictures of the sixteen judges who’ve served in the past 200 years. Siamas, who majored in history at Indiana University, once planned to earn his Ph.D., but academic positions in the field dwindled in the 1970s when he attended, so he followed a backup plan, law.
His path into law began with his father, a local law enforcement officer. “In some ways, I felt like I got into the family business. My father was a very even-handed law enforcement officer and it was interesting to me that when I came to practice law as a prosecutor. I prosecuted quite a few repeat offenders that my father had put in jail, and almost to a person they would tell me, ‘You know, I respected your father. He always treated me with respect even though I had done something wrong.’”
Siamas grew up in Crawfordsville, graduated as an Athenian, and when he returned, he was appointed prosecutor by Governor Otis Bowen in 1977. He served that role into 1983 but found that being a prosecutor demanded intense focus and balance. A prosecutor is an advocate, unlike a judge, and a good one must consider that they are advocating to put away a person. They have to guard against aggressiveness and consider the humanity of the person even if they are guilty.
For a dozen years, Siamas has practiced judicial wisdom when it comes to whoever enters the courtroom. Five times in our hour-long conversation, he used the word balance. Balance is about law and humanity. He made it his philosophy to treat the courtroom as his to run, but not his to control or dominate.
“This is a courtroom of the citizens who come here to have their issues decided and they just invited me to help them decide whatever their legal issue is. So it’s really their courtroom. I’m a guest; they’re the people who really reside here.” He’s been entrusted to decide people’s “most important” matters: life and death, custody of children, personal fortune. He’s served at the election of the people, and as he sits there, sharing his reflection, dressed smartly, he shifts several times in the stiff wooden chair. He had taken the seat that didn’t swivel or rock. Instead, he’d offered it to me.
On the back wall, four more framed pictures show the most recent county judges. The last one shows a beaming Judge Thomas K. Milligan, who looks like the sort of man that could be a favorite grandfather. Milligan mentored Siamas, and Milligan’s impact and thirty-six-year legacy have clearly been a fatherly ghost shaping Siamas’ judicial philosophy. A philosophy driven by the awareness that everyone is human, humans make horrible choices, but still have good in them.
Siamas’s legal practice included some heartbreaking cases. He defended Arthur Baird in 1985, while in private practice. Baird, a Darlington native, murdered his pregnant wife, then his mother, followed by his father, all within twenty-four hours. Later he adjudicated over the Brandi Worley case and recently a case of neglect against Dylan T. Myers that resulted in “catastrophic injury” for Charlie Marshall and intersected with a similar charge against Myers in Boone County for a toddler.
What Siamas holds in balance is the knowledge that the vast majority of crimes are committed by younger people, that recent scientific evidence points to their brain’s continuing development, and yet, the consequences should they be released on bail and become repeat offenders. He holds in balance the huge number of custody cases where couples are so caught in their acrimony that they neglect to acknowledge the trauma inflicted on their children. He holds in balance the traumatic cycles of neglect and abuse of children and teens.
I asked if his judicial philosophy has been informed by his wife Susie’s career as an early childhood educator. Certainly, he’s well-read on the data that teachers and therapists use to inform their practice. Siamas, who met his wife Susie in college while at a Greek Orthodox event at Holy Trinity in Indianapolis, acknowledged how much he learned listening to her talk about education. He also raised three daughters and has two grandchildren. His childhood faith, his family, his mentors, his wife, parenting, this community, and history appear to have informed his disposition towards people, those he’s defended, prosecuted and judged.
He acknowledged he’d like to redo and improve upon his early years as a judge - who wouldn’t like to redo first years in a role with all the wisdom that experience imparts?- He credited Judge Milligan for teaching by example that “if you treat people with respect, acknowledge their situation” it does wonders in reducing tension. If a person comes into court, acting up, Siamas says to them, “I want to hear your story. But what we have to do first is listen to them, then I’m going to listen to you. If they believe you are respecting them as a person, then they’re going to calm down and trust you will make a decision with some fairness.”
As the year closes and the League wraps up the columns, no better example for democracy and our county than Judge Siamas’ can be held up. As he wraps up his service in this community and turns it over to Judge Darren Chad, we citizens can remember that humans all want a better life, dignity, respect, and many will do better and recover from mistakes with wise guidance.
Siamas noted at the end of the conversation that his grandfather, also named Harry Siamas, immigrated to the county in the 1930s. With almost no education and barely speaking English, he built a memorable restaurant, Coney Island, with his secret coney sauce - the recipe is buried with him. He proudly employed others, paid his taxes, and became a citizen. He instilled that sense of citizenship in Judge Siamas, along with a giddy joy in working on the same block all these years later. Coney Island was where the courthouse parking lot is now.
In closing, Judge Siamas recounted a talk he gave for St. Johns some years back. He and his wife were at Longs Donuts in a rough area of Indianapolis. Like many great food dives, the long lines were worth the wait, but he started to feel a bit uncomfortable. He felt more and more out of place as the clock ticked off seconds and he observed the inner-city folks around him. Meanwhile, Susie started a game with a little girl in the line. The longer Susie and the girl played, the more people started smiling at each other. His anxiety dissipated. He realized how unfounded it had been. As the girl and Susie remained playful, he realized We are all basically good, all humans, and we have to bring that out in each other. That is our connection.
Happy New Year. Thanks for reading.