Amid accusations, Lake, St. Joseph judicial nominating bill passes Senate

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The Indiana Senate approved a bill reducing local attorney input into who serves on the judicial nominating commissions for Lake and St. Joseph counties Monday despite objections from Democratic senators, one of whom insinuated the changes were triggered by anonymous complaints from candidates who had lost out on judge appointments.

“There was some nefarious stuff going on behind this bill. … That’s what all this is about,” asserted Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, one of several senators who voiced opposition to House Bill 1453, which cleared the upper chamber 34-13 on third reading and will return to the House with an amendment.

Senate sponsor Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, chafed at accusations from Democratic senators “questioning my integrity a little bit” after about 90 minutes of Senate debate Monday on legislation that has been uniformly opposed by local and state bar associations and attorneys who have testified about it.

Niemeyer said he had “people coming to me,” concerned about the fairness of the judicial nominating commissions, though he declined to name them, and no attorneys have testified in favor of the bill. “You know how hard it is for a lawyer in Lake County to question the system?”

While opposition to the legislation was unanimous among lawyers who spoke publicly during hearings on the bill, Niemeyer said at the close of debate, “I’ve got the opposite, and that’s all I can tell you.”

But Taylor, the Senate minority leader, did name several unsuccessful candidates for Lake County judgeships, without making direct accusations, pressing Niemeyer on whether he knew them. “I told Senator Niemeyer I didn’t want to do this,” Taylor said. Video of Monday’s Senate session will be posted here.

Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, also pointed to recent litigation by a member of the St. Joseph panel that resulted in the removal of two ineligible members. That, she said, “puts into question the integrity of the process.”

Nevertheless, the reconstituted commission forwarded the same judicial finalists for Gov. Eric Holcomb’s consideration in February.

House Bill 1453 was amended last week and will return to the House for consideration as amended. The proposal would eliminate attorney input into who is chosen to serve on the nominating commissions in Lake and St. Joseph counties. Currently, lawyers choose four of nine attorney members of the Lake County panel and three of seven in St. Joe.

The bill as amended would set the number of members of each committee at seven. Three would be appointed by the governor and three by county commissioners in each county. Attorney representation would be reduced to two members, and the bills would stipulate one appointee be a woman and one member a minority. Each panel would be chaired by the chief justice or her designee. Each panel would submit five names of finalists for the governor to appoint a judge when a vacancy occurs.

The legislation also would remove current limits on how many members may be of the same political party. That change prompted Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, to observe that politics were being inserted into a system that had been designed to be nonpolitical.

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office has not responded to IL questions about whether Holcomb supports the bill. Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, testified during Monday’s Senate session that Holcomb had told him “he has a big agenda” and “the makeup of the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission is not on his plate.”

Randolph unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the Senate to act as a jury, hear the evidence concerning the bill and deliver a judgment against it. He said there was direct evidence that the current system had worked well for 40 years and produced good judges, as well as unanimous opposition from the many attorney stakeholders who had testified. The only evidence in support of the bill was indirect evidence, he said, from unknown people.

“I’m asking you for a verdict for Lake County. I’m asking you to defeat this bill because it’s not in the best interests of Lake County,” said Randolph, a longtime attorney in the Region.

Likewise, Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, practices from the county next door to Lake but said, typically, about half her matters were there. She said there was no reason to tinker with a system that’s produced good judges and has been seen as a model for merit selection processes.

“It ain’t broke. We don’t need to be fixing anything,” Tallian said. “I don’t know who these people are who talked to Sen. Niemeyer,” she said, but she noted many people have asked her, “Why are they doing this? … I have no answer.”

Taylor said he also was concerned that the amended legislation might limit gender and minority representation on the panels. He questioned Niemeyer about why the amended bill calls for one woman and one minority member on each panel, striking language requiring “at least” one of each on the Lake County commission.

“You’re trying to read more into this legislation than is there,” Niemeyer responded, denying the amended bill would limit diversity on the panels. He noted the bill for the first time would apply diversity requirements to the St. Joe panel.

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