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Praising new judicial selections

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The Hoosier legal community is publicly praising the newest nominees for the state's federal bench as good choices, particularly for those interested in seeing a more diverse judiciary.

The White House announced Jan. 20 that Jon E. DeGuilio , U.S. Magistrate Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson and Marion Superior Judge Tanya Walton Pratt would be nominated for three openings in the state's two U.S. District Courts.

This came two days after Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, made the announcement about the nominations at the federal courthouse in Indianapolis on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the Northern District, the nominee would fill the void left by Judge Allen Sharp, who died in July after serving in senior status for about two years. The Southern District seats are open after Judge Larry McKinney took senior status in July and Judge David F. Hamilton was elevated in November to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

While the triple-announcement comes as a first in the number of Hoosier judicial nominations made at the same time, Judge Pratt represents a historic milestone in that she'd be the first African-American to hold a seat on the federal bench in Indiana. Also, if Judges Pratt and Magnus-Stinson are approved, this would double from two to four the number of women on Indiana's federal bench.

The nominations come just as a new University of Albany study shows that female representation among the federal judiciary is lacking nationally - women make up 22 percent of all federal judgeships, with most states at the 20 percent mark and only Connecticut and New Jersey hitting the 33 percent mark. Currently, U.S. District Court Judges Sarah Evans Barker and Theresa Springmann put Indiana at the 20 percent mark, but if the new female nominees are confirmed, four of the 10 federal judges would be women.

Aside from the historic nature of the female nominees, Bayh described all three as being "recognized leaders in the Indiana legal community, demonstrating experience, insight, and non-ideological temperament that Hoosiers should expect from their judges. Indiana's Republican Sen. Dick Lugar praised his colleague's deliberative process in choosing these three, whom he also describes as legal community leaders.

DeGuilio currently serves as general counsel and vice president for Peoples Bank in northwest Indiana, after his six years in the 1990s as chief federal prosecutor for the Northern District of Indiana, and a stint as Lake County prosecutor and as a public defender there. He's also worked as a partner at the South Bend office of Barnes & Thornburg.

Magistrate Judge Magnus-Stinson started at the Marion Superior Court in the mid-90s and through the years presided over every type of felony case before moving to the federal bench in January 2007 to replace the retiring Magistrate Judge V. Sue Shields. Prior to the state bench, she served as counsel and deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Bayh; she also worked in the civil litigation practice at LewisWagner for seven years before that.

Judge Pratt is on the Marion Superior bench, currently presiding over civil and probate cases after many years of handling major felony cases. She also has served on the Marion Superior Court's executive committee. She was a family law and probate attorney and a deputy public defender prior to taking the bench.

The first step for each of the nominees is the Senate Judiciary, which must approve a nomination before sending it to the full Senate for consideration. No timeline exists on the confirmation process, but the past four Indiana judicial nominees have taken anywhere from four to eight months. Nationally, other judicial nominations have been delayed for years when opposition arose.

In the legal community, attorneys asked about their thoughts on the nominations expressed satisfaction about each of the nominees whom they've practiced with or appeared before either in state or federal court.

Attorney Larry Evans at Valparaiso law firm Hoeppner Wagner & Evans, a frequent practitioner in federal court, said he's known DeGuilio through bar association and other connections through the years. Even though he hasn't had experience on the bench, Evans said he thinks his colleague is well qualified and has the ideal temperament, judicial demeanor, and overall intellect for the bench.

"That's not necessarily a good thing," he said about only having nominees who've presided on the bench. "That's the European model, where you're trained to become a judge right out of law school. But that's not how our system operates."

Other attorneys in the Northern District, such as Bill Padula in Munster and T. Edward Page in Merrillville, said that DeGuilio would make a fine addition to the federal bench because of his professionalism, temperament, and sharp legal mind. For DeGuilio, federal dockets show his name appearing in 40 criminal, civil, and bankruptcy cases through the years, mostly in the mid-90s.

In the Southern District, Indianapolis criminal defense attorney D. Alan Ladd spoke highly of the two nominees there, echoing the comments made by other attorneys. He's appeared before both and has found them to be fair and evenhanded.

Particularly, he praised how Judge Pratt moved from the criminal to probate side following the death of longtime Superior Judge Charles Deiter in late 2008.

"That was not an easy transition for anyone because it's a total change of gears, but she's very bright and thoughtful and did it so well for everyone involved," he said. "They both have great temperament and I'm pleased to see them both nominated."

Indianapolis attorney John Kautzman at Ruckelshaus Kautzman Blackwell Bemis & Hasbrook also said he has experience appearing before both Southern District nominees.

"I always favor judges who have trial court experience," he said. "That's a valuable resource to draw upon, and I think it makes them better federal judges."

He's found both to have an unusual and uncanny ability to cut through miscellaneous and complex issues and get right to the heart of a matter, and make practical decisions for all parties.

"That's a strong and important trait for any judge," he said.

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