SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Gilbert V. Indeglia’s law practice as a country lawyer brought insight about life’s difficult challenges, which years later as a Rhode Island Supreme Court justice he never forgot.
Recognized recently for his compassion, judicial demeanor and even-handed approach, Indeglia, 79, of South Kingstown, said simply that being a judge for 31 years fulfilled a dream and life’s calling.
By almost any measure, rising to associate justice of the state supreme court gave him a legal career in the judicial ranks afforded to only to a few. It is a gift and honor he is well aware of receiving.
“For a lot of lawyers, (becoming a judge) is the ultimate of your career,” he told The Independent in an interview. Going to the state’s highest court was an exceptional privilege, he said.
For just about a decade, he brought meaning and understanding to the state’s laws in case after case. It earned him the respect of lawyers and others appearing for cases before him, said several colleagues.
This month he received the prestigious Chief Justice Joseph R. Weisberger Judicial Excellence Award from the R.I. Bar Association.
The award is given to a state or federal judge whom the bar association said exemplifies and encourages the highest level of competence, integrity, judicial conduct and professionalism.
Weisberger, who died in 2012, served the Rhode Island judiciary for 56 years. An internationally renowned jurist, Weisberger was initially appointed to the Rhode Island Superior Court in 1956. In March of 1995, he was appointed Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and served through February of 2001.
Indeglia’s career started in the trenches of law and politics in the years following his 1966 graduation from the University of Michigan Law School.
“I’m kind of a ham-and-eggs guy,” he said about his early work. “I did everything — property, estates, wills, criminal, admiralty that included a couple guys with fishing boats,” said Indeglia, who worked with his uncle at first and later had a solo law practice with an office in mostly rural South Kingstown.
Nonetheless, compassion underscored his approach as the country lawyer. One person recalled that there were some years when a client couldn’t pay for legal work and Indeglia took payment in zucchini dropped off at his house for the family.
Soon, though, politics also drew his interest.
“I had it embedded in my personality that politics isn’t a bad thing,” he said about the process that also can help lead to judicial appointments after getting to know the movers and shakers in a state legislature or governor’s office.
That political part of his career began as probate judge and assistant town solicitor in South Kingstown. Later he was elected to the town council, where he served as vice president and president.
Eventually politics took him to the Rhode Island House of Representatives, where he served three terms, including appointment as deputy minority leader.
Yet, that calling to be a judge — rather than a politician — remained loud and crisp.
“I saw going to the bench as an opportunity to continue public service,” he said. “As soon as I got there, I saw that it was a nice fit. Every court I was in I liked.”
From 1989 to 2000, he served in the Rhode Island District Court. He was appointed to the Rhode Island Superior Court in 2000.
“I was always intrigued by the jury trial process,” he said about the step from advancement to become a Superior Court judge handling more contentious, serious and controversial civil and criminal matters.
As time went by, he eventually let people know in state government that he had an interest in a Supreme Court appointment. In 2010 Governor Donald Carcieri nominated him.
Kathrine Kohm was a Supreme Court clerk for Indeglia from 2010 to 2011, which was his first term. She said that he quickly digested complex legal issues across all areas of law, but in a measured, reserved and analytical way.
“Before reaching a final decision, he invited discussion and debate, carefully analyzed the law, and meticulously crafted his written work. Also memorable is how Justice Indeglia led his chambers with such warmth, kindness, and a willingness to mentor,” she said.
His principled approach to work shaped her view, as she entered a law career, of the best way to practice law. He also offered advice and support after her clerkship ended.
Superior Court Associate Justice Daniel A. Procaccini was the 2017 Weisberger Judicial Excellence Award recipient and praised Indeglia for his work.
“As I recall Justice Indeglia’s approach to judging, Socrates described it perfectly: Four things belong to a judge: to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly, and to decide impartially,” he said.
In his retirement, Indeglia continues to work from a small office in the Supreme Court to help run programs educating students about law and government, once called “civics.” He said that education in civics today is lacking and needs special attention.
In the fall he hopes to start a pilot civics program delivered virtually to school children.
“It would be good to eventually bring them to the court and government offices so they can see how cases are handled and what government is all about,” he said.
He and his wife, Betsy, have two children and three grandchildren. He said he wanted to leave the daily work of hearing arguments, reading briefs, debating cases and writing opinions – the work of the high court – while his health allowed him quality time with his family.
“Willie Mays played one game too many. I wanted to get out at the top of my game,” he said.