First female county judge blazing trail for women

Growing up, AmyMarie Travis watched very little television. Instead, her parents encouraged her to spend time reading or be outside playing and riding her horse.

But on the rare occasion when she did get a little tube time, Travis would tune into episodes of the British series “Rumpole of the Bailey” on PBS and dream of being an attorney.

“I was allowed to watch one hour of television a day,” she said. “’Rumpole of the Bailey’ was about this person who was a barrister, and I specifically remember going to my dad and saying, ‘I’m going to be a barrister.’ I was literally 8 or 9 years old.”

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From her father, she learned barristers are called lawyers in the United States, so that’s what she set her mind to becoming.

“I thought it was so interesting, the concept of reading the law and arguing about how it applied to facts,” she said.

One of the challenges she faced on her path to becoming a lawyer is that she has dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes it difficult to read. But Travis didn’t let that stand in her way. She learned that although she might be a slower reader, her comprehension level and ability to remember what she had read were higher than others.

Path to the bench

She received a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University and later earned her law degree from the Indiana University Maurer School of Law in 1993. Her career began as a deputy prosecutor in Lake and Monroe counties and in private practice.

Travis began working in the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office as chief deputy prosecutor in 2007 and was appointed county prosecutor in 2012 when Rick Poynter became judge of Jackson Circuit Court. She was elected to 4-year term as prosecutor in 2014.

In May 2018, Gov. Eric Holcomb appointed her to the bench to serve as judge of Jackson County Superior Court I after the retirement of Judge Bruce Markel III.

She is the county’s first and only female judge and also was the county’s first elected female prosecutor.

“That’s been a really humbling, amazing experience for me,” she said. “I feel so incredibly blessed.”

She has never felt belittled or inferior because of her gender and said she stands in good company with the many other professional women in Jackson County.

“The acceptance I have felt has been amazing,” she said.

Since becoming a judge, Travis said she has been approached by young women who look up to her and are inspired by her career.

“I’ve had young ladies come to me and say, ‘I know that because you became a judge, I can become a doctor, a veterinarian, a judge, whatever. I can do that,’ and that gives me goosebumps every time it happens,” she said.

Travis said she is able to carry out her duties and be a role model to others because of her parents. She credits them for instilling in her a strong sense of right and wrong and in being the role models she needed to grow up into who she is today.

“My mom is a very dynamic, very strong woman, and so I always had that image of what a woman should be,” Travis said. “And my father was always so amazingly respectful of my mother and considered her a partner in their relationship, so having grown up that way, I never thought there was anything I couldn’t do.”

Court is in session

In January, the 50-year-old Brownstown resident presided over her first jury trial, an experience she won’t soon forget.

The case had been pending since 2016. The trial lasted two days.

“There are a couple of things about it that were exciting for me and historic,” she said. “One, it was the first jury trial in the new Jackson County Judicial Center, and it was my first jury trial as a judge.”

Travis said there are amazing benefits to having all three of Jackson County’s courts now housed in the new judicial center in Brownstown. When she was working out of the courthouse in Seymour, she said almost daily, there would be people coming there who needed to be in Brownstown and vice versa.

The new judicial center also provides increased security for court workers and all of those involved in cases, she said.

“The building itself is beautiful and well-designed,” she said. “Jackson County is a really special place and deserves really special buildings that belong to the people.”

The first case involved a car wreck between a vehicle and a semitractor-trailer on Interstate 65. Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant was local. The jury’s verdict was in favor of the plaintiff, who was awarded $40,000.

“People always think of our courts only dealing with Jackson County people, and that wasn’t the case in this instance,” Travis said.

It also was a civil matter, where the vast majority of Lucas’ trial experience has been in criminal cases as a prosecutor.

“The role of the judge through the whole jury trial is ruling on admissibility of evidence,” she said. “The judge also has to instruct the jury so they know what they’re supposed to do.”

Having a neutral perspective

To explain her job better, Travis compares a trial to a sporting event. The coaches are the lawyers and she is the referee or umpire, who is making sure the game is played fairly and the rules are applied.

The big difference between her previous work and being a judge is she’s not focused on just one side anymore.

“When you become a judge, you’re a neutral body that’s in the middle listening to the arguments and the way the facts apply to the laws that are applicable in any given case,” she said.

Her caseload is wide and varied and includes criminal misdemeanors, evictions, small claims, civil torts, plenaries, mortgage foreclosures and civil collections. Superior Court I is a high-volume court, so she has to be on top of her caseload.

“I may be in court doing hearings on various different things,” she said. “Small claims are resolved by bench trials, which means it’s put on in front of a judge, not a jury. I may be doing criminal cases. I could be doing an initial hearing. I could do any number of different kinds of hearings that ultimately resolves that case or a hearing that just addresses one aspect of the case or figures out where it’s going next.”

Because of the wide variety of cases she hears, Travis said she never gets bored.

“The great thing about this job is that it is a wide array of different things,” she said. “Every day is interesting.”

Becoming a judge, she knew she would have to listen with a very open mind to make sure she was fulfilling her role and being neutral.

“I knew I would be very disciplined because I’m here being a judge for the people in Jackson County, and I absolutely want to make sure I’m a minister of justice and I’m doing it right,” she said.

It ended up being an easier transition than she expected it to be.

“When you take that oath, it really is almost like it changes you, and you immediately kind of move into this other role,” she said.

‘Still compassionate after all these years’

Jeff Chalfant, who replaced Travis as prosecutor, said Travis’ ability to be patient and listen with compassion and an open mind is what makes her a good judge.

He has worked with Travis over the years, starting in the Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office. She even officiated at his wedding.

Although he hasn’t yet argued a case in front of Travis, Chalfant said being a judge is a difficult job.

“I think there are certain qualities that really do help,” he said. “One of the things that is difficult about being a judge is that it requires you to sit in judgment over people. We are all human beings, and just because you put on a black robe, you don’t automatically become all-knowing.”

A judge’s role also is difficult because they are required to make decisions using limited information they get in court, he said.

“That information is all filtered and screened through the people in court, and they generally are biased,” he said. “What I think about Amy that really helps her a lot is she is still compassionate after all these years on the job, and that’s not easy.”

Travis takes her responsibilities very seriously because she knows it impacts people’s lives in a big way.

“Whether it’s a small claims case over $250 or a civil tort case that’s over a million dollars, it’s important to that person in the court, so I really try to be just extremely patient and extremely cognizant of how important it is to the people in front of me,” she said.

Chalfant said he also is impressed by the way Travis thinks.

“She has just about the most logical brain I’ve ever encountered,” he said. “Whenever someone has a problem, she always works through it in a logical step-by-step fashion.”

Another quality he appreciates in Travis is her ability to challenge people’s viewpoints.

“If you express an opinion to her or if she doesn’t agree with you or if she wants to have a deeper understanding of your point, she’ll call you on it,” he said. “A lot of time in our society, people just want to argue or they just ignore you, and what she has consistently done is she’ll challenge you on it, and she’ll make you back up your point. It gets to the deeper issues and is a part of the search for truth that we all look for in our field.”

When she’s not working, Travis and her husband, Bryant Lucas, have a farm, horses and rescue dogs. They also enjoy spending time with Lucas’ two grown sons and their two granddaughters.

She also is heavily involved in the Jackson County Drug-Free Council serving as president, is on the board of trustees at the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute and is a member of Brownstown Tri Kappa philanthropic sorority, Brownstown Exchange Club and Spurs and Wheels Saddle Club.

“I’m a member of this community, and I want to help this community. I want to do good things,” she said. “I always want to stay in touch with people and make sure that I understand in a deep and meaningful way the goals and aspirations and values of Jackson County. You can’t really do that if you aren’t out there in the community doing things, volunteering.”

Chalfant said having Travis serve as the county’s first female prosecutor and now judge is inspiration to women everywhere to reach for the highest level of achievement in their lives.

“I think having achieved the success she has in the positions that she has that she has earned people’s respect,” he said. “As a judge, as a lawyer, as a person, I just have the highest regard for Amy. I think she’s awesome.”