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.
“Her parting shot to her colleagues indicating that she cannot imagine any one of us being able to replace her as Juvenile Court Judge is Exhibit A: Arrogance,” Villalpando wrote. “For her own good she needs to wake up, otherwise, she is in for a rude awakening upon arriving in Indianapolis. … She should be focused on her future and serving the needs of the children of Indiana.”
Judges say they are within their rights under Lake Superior Court rules to fill the vacancy by transfer, but Bonaventura and now the magistrates said merit selection is required.
Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP partner Karl Mulvaney is representing the Lake County judges in the dispute. “There certainly is an issue regarding a local rule and a state statute,” Mulvaney said. He said he could not comment on his clients’ position ahead of mediation.
Lake County Bar Association President Michael Jasaitis said the local bar has taken no position in the dispute.
“As a result of the recent filings, this matter is now before the Indiana Supreme Court for disposition. Therefore, the Lake County Bar Association, as an organization, has taken the position that it should refrain from commenting on the current pending litigation,” Jasaitis said in a statement.
A veteran Lake County attorney who occasionally practices in juvenile court spoke with Indiana Lawyer on condition of anonymity and said local rules permit transfers within civil, criminal and juvenile divisions. There have been a couple within specific divisions in the past decade, but transfers across those divisions have not happened, the attorney said.
“Lawyers are disappointed with the way the vacancy is being approached by the judges,” the attorney said. “The legal community is somewhat put off that the judges have put off the statutes” regarding merit selection.
The peek behind the curtain of the judges meeting was startling, the attorney said, because Bonaventura “was a very popular judge, and she may have been envied because she was so popular statewide.
“It’s been a surprise to everyone that there’s been this much strife.”
Charles Geyh, a professor and judicial appointment expert at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said the dispute in Lake County is “driven by the perverse eccentricities of Indiana’s trial court selection processes.
“One would like to think that the process for replacing a juvenile court judge would be sufficiently clear that one would not need to resort to litigation to figure out whether new judges are chosen by commission-based gubernatorial appointment or by other judges within the district,” Geyh said.
The situation in Lake County illustrates the need for a uniform statewide method of trial judge selection, he added.
Meantime, resolution of the dispute will be left up to the parties involved, at least for the next month or so, until Sullivan’s deadline for a mediation report.
“This court expects the mediation process to begin promptly and to proceed with all due deliberate focus,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote in the April 1 order. “This court retains jurisdiction over this original action during mediation but holds in abeyance its consideration of this original action, pending completion of mediation.”
The Lake County attorney was doubtful: “There’s no suggestion or indication that anyone’s going to back down.”•