The Indiana Election Commission has pulled one Lake County judicial candidate off the ballot because of how the political process put him into the race, while a controversial incumbent Allen Superior judge remains on the ballot despite arguments that his disciplinary history should keep him off.
At a four-hour meeting Thursday afternoon in Indianapolis, the four-member election commission took sweeping action that influences the upcoming Nov. 2 general election. One decision translates into a determination that incumbent judges aren’t held to the same standards as attorneys who might run for the bench, while the other paves the way for a likely court case on who can be in the race to replace the longtime Lake Circuit judge.
The two agenda items included judicial candidacy questions involving Allen Superior Judge Ken Scheibenberger and Lake Circuit judicial prospect William I. Fine.
A group of 12 residents argued Judge Scheibenberger should be removed from the ballot because he’s been disciplined by the Indiana Supreme Court, via the Judicial Qualifications Commission, and that makes him ineligible for the ballot. The Supreme Court last year suspended the longtime judge for three days without pay because of his conduct in late 2007, when he went into another judge’s courtroom wearing his robe for a sentencing hearing and verbally accosted the family of a defendant he suspected had been connected to his son’s drug-related death a year before. The justices determined his behavior was that of a grieving parent.
Opponents wanting the judge removed from the ballot used that history and IC 33-33-2-10(3), which states that judicial candidates may not have had “any disciplinary sanction imposed …by the supreme court disciplinary commission of Indiana or any similar body in another state.” They argued it applies to judges, while Judge Scheibenberger and his legal team contended that it’s a term of art not applicable to incumbent judges.
Jeff Arnold, a lawyer speaking on behalf of the challengers, said the statute used the disciplinary commission as a general term since it wasn’t capitalized and should also be read to encompass the judicial qualifications commission. He noted that if the commission reads that law closely, it technically does nothing at all because only the Supreme Court can sanction attorneys and judges.
But the judge’s attorney Robert Thompson said that phrase was a term of art and that the General Assembly knew exactly what it was doing to specifically craft a statute that draws a distinction between disciplined attorneys and judges. He said that wording was crafted because the Indiana Constitution specifically outlined the powers of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, and this statute wasn’t meant to usurp that higher authority.
“If they meant to include sitting judges, they would have included a sanction initiated by the Judicial Qualifications Commission,” he said. “You can’t construe it any way you want to. That’s not a good legal argument.”
Election commission member Anthony Long said the drafting error might mean the statute is ineffective but that “it wouldn’t be the first time,” and he doesn’t want to broaden the interpretation of a statute as it’s written. Other members echoed his concerns, and they encouraged residents to ask their legislators to clarify the statute if they have a concern.
With that unanimous 4-0 vote and dismissal, Judge Scheibenberger stays on the ballot to run for the seat he’s held since 1992. Fort Wayne attorneys Wendy Davis and Lewis Griffin are running against him for the judgeship.
But commissioners weren’t as agreeable in the other judicial candidacy case involving Highland attorney Fine, who is the Republican candidate for the Lake Circuit opening once Judge Lorenzo Arredondo leaves the bench later this year. Merrillville Town Judge George Paras won the Democratic primary in May and no Republican was on the primary ballot, so party chair Kim Krull named Fine to fill that ballot vacancy to run against Judge Paras. But some questioned his candidacy based on whether the party chair has the ability to name a candidate herself rather than the party doing so at a caucus.
Fine’s counsel wanted the commission to deny the challenge outright because they didn't believe the state board had jurisdiction to decide the matter, while the other side questioned the Republican Party rules and state statute allowing that practice. Fine’s attorney argued that a caucus in the Lake County matter wouldn't have been required because the Circuit Court covers only one county, and the caucus rule only extends to circuits covering more than one county.
Commission chair Dan Dumezich, a Chicago attorney and former Indiana lawmaker, said he disagreed with keeping Fine off the ballot because he believes Krull had the authority to put him there.
"Now he has to go to court," Dumezich said.