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Case asks whether school board members can run for political office

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A Lake Superior judge may not be breaking any new legal ground with an election-related ruling this week, but he’s set the stage for an appeal that could clear up confusion about whether nonpartisan school board members must give up their right to run for a public office that requires the candidate to declare their political party affiliation.

The ruling by Lake Superior Judge Jesse Villalpando came in George T. Janiec v. Lake County Board of Election and Registration, No. 45D12-1103-MI-00014. Hammond school board member George Janiec wants to run as a Republican against incumbent Democratic city mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. in the May 3 primary. The Democratic Party members of the Lake County Elections Board agreed to remove Janiec from the ballot on grounds that state statute prevents local school board members from political campaigning. If Janiec wants to run for mayor, he must first resign from the school board.

Janiec appealed to the trial court. Judge Villalpando on Wednesday ruled against him and found that he should essentially remove himself from the ballot. At issue is whether Janiec breached an implied statutory duty outlined in Indiana Code Section 20-25-3-3(c)(4) that he wouldn’t be influenced by any political considerations once he took the school board seat July 1, 2010, but did just that when declaring his candidacy for the partisan municipal mayor seat in February.

In his ruling, the judge wrote, “The court finds as a matter of law that the Election Board acted consistent with legislative authority pursuant to: I.C. 20-25-3-3(c)(4), contrary to the legal authority cited in either Petitioner’s or Respondent’s legal memoranda. I.C. 20-25-3-3 specifically applies to the question of conduct to which eligible school board members must adhere. This statute is unambiguous and spot on as it applies to the operative facts of this case.”

Judge Villalpando wrote this isn’t a case of first impression as the election board attorney James Weiser argued, and that the petitioner’s attorneys Cordell Funk and William Fine are also incorrect in saying the election board created a new standard in denying Janiec’s candidacy.

In his 10-page ruling, the judge cited a code of ethics adopted by the School City of Hammond and the Indiana School Board Association that states board members should refuse to "'play politics in either the traditional, partisan or in any petty sense." The Indiana Supreme Court dictated the limited judicial review applicable in this case in its ruling, LTV Steel v Griffin, and using that case, Judge Villalpando ruled that Janiec alone created the condition that undermined his candidacy for mayor according to any straightforward examination of I.C. 20-25-3-3(c)(4). As a result, the Election Board did not abuse its discretion in its March 7th ruling barring Janiec’s candidacy.

The holding is limited to the specific operative facts stated in Janiec’s case and is not intended to establish new policies pertaining to school board members’ constitutionally protected political activities, other than filing a declaration of candidacy for partisan municipal office while holding a nonpartisan office.

But whether the judge intends for this to be a broad stroke or not, history shows that others have done what Janiec is being barred from doing now.

Four decades ago, Hammond school board member Ralph Potesta used his position to win election as a Republican to the Indiana Senate, and currently two other Lake County school board members remain on the May 3 primary ballot for city council seats despite their current positions. Gary School Board trustee LaBrenda King-Smith faced a challenge in her running for city council but that failed on technical grounds. Lake Station School Board member Michael Stills is running for an at-large City Council seat and has been unchallenged.

A notice of appeal in Janiec’s case was filed following a hearing on Thursday, but nothing yet appears on the appellate docket. This issue is on a truncated time table because early voting begins on Monday.
 

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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