A fight over a Lake County judicial vacancy put the Indiana Supreme Court in the unusual position of issuing three orders in 12 days recently, ultimately telling the warring parties to settle among themselves a bitter dispute gone public.
The infighting among judges revealed a level of animosity that surprised some longtime attorneys familiar with the local bench.
After Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura announced she would depart Lake Superior Court Juvenile Division to run the Indiana Department of Child Services, judges in the merit-selection county shuffled the deck, and Judge Nicholas Schiralli was granted leave to transfer to the juvenile bench from Superior Court County Division 1 on the basis of seniority.
Bonaventura cried foul, saying state law required the position be filled through the Lake Judicial Nominating Commission’s vetting process, in which attorneys interested in the position would be interviewed and five finalists’ names would be submitted for Gov. Mike Pence’s selection.
Juvenile court magistrates also said the transfer conflicted with the merit-selection statute and would deprive them of an opportunity to apply for the vacancy. They requested a writ of mandamus on March 20, days before Bonaventura was to depart, in State of Indiana ex rel. Glenn D. Commons, et al., v. the Hon. John R. Pera as Chief Judge of the Lake Superior Court, et al., 45S00-1303-OR-209.
The Supreme Court issued a succession of orders:
On March 21, the court issued an emergency order and writ staying Schiralli’s transfer until justices could rule further;
On March 22, the court appointed Senior Judge Thomas W. Webber Sr. to serve as judge pro tem in the juvenile court “until the selection of a replacement for Bonaventura can be determined”; and
On April 1, the court appointed former Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. to oversee mediation among the parties. Mediation is expected to resolve the standoff by mid-May, and Sullivan is to file a mediation report with the court by May 23.
But just in case mediation fails, the court ordered briefing from the judges filed by April 8.
Neither Schiralli nor Bonaventura responded to messages seeking comment regarding the situation, but as the controversy percolated, at least one Lake County judge lashed out in writing.
Lake Superior Judge Jesse M. Villalpando wrote to Chief Judge John Pera and copied three other judges, congratulating Pera on a March 11 letter to Justice Robert Rucker stating the reasons why Schiralli’s transfer was permissible under local rules.
Bonaventura’s objection illustrated her “misplaced priorities,” Villalpando wrote in the letter to Pera published by the Times of Northwest Indiana. Bonaventura had urged the transfer of Judge John Sedia, who declined, before she urged merit selection at a February meeting of Lake Superior judges, Villalpando wrote.