Bill removing lawyers from Lake, St. Joseph judicial panels draws more fire

Efforts to amend a bill that would fundamentally change the composition of the judicial nominating commissions in Lake and St. Joseph counties failed in the Indiana House on Tuesday, setting up the controversial legislation for a possible final House vote next week.

Democratic Rep. Vernon Smith unsuccessfully introduced two amendments to House Bill 1453, which would reduce the northern Indiana JNCs to five members each, three of whom would be appointed by the governor.

Currently, the Lake County body is comprised of nine members, four of whom are attorneys and four of whom are not. The ninth member is Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, who chairs the commission. In St. Joseph County, Justice Christopher Goff leads the JNC that includes three attorneys and three nonattorneys.

Under HB 1453, authored by Rep. Michael Aylesworth, R-Hebron, the governor would appoint three members to the commissions, including the chairs, while the county commissioners would appoint the other two. The Indiana chief justice or a Supreme Court designee would serve as an ex officio nonvoting member of the commissions. The legislation would repeal laws governing the number of attorneys required to serve on each commission.

Aylesworth’s bill aggravated Democrats on Tuesday, when he introduced his legislation in the House Judiciary Committee. The committee advanced the bill on a party-line 6-4 vote.

Smith, of Gary, and Rep. Ryan Dvorak, a Democrat from South Bend, told the committee on Tuesday that members of the bench and bar in their counties strongly opposed the restructuring of their judicial nominating commissions. They called the bill an open attempt to increase the number of Republican judges in the Democrat-majority counties, and Smith raised the specter of minority discrimination.

Angela Jones, a Lake County lawyer who chairs the local bar association, spoke against HB 1453 in committee on behalf of the Lake County, James C. Kimbrough and Rudy Lozano bar associations. Dvorak said the bar in his county was not given enough notice to testify in person, but South Bend legal professionals submitted letters opposing the measure.

Before the full House on Thursday, Smith introduced an amendment that would apply the language of HB 1453 to each of Indiana’s 92 counties. Currently, only four counties — Allen, Lake, Marion and St. Joseph — use a merit selection process. Aylesworth’s bill does not apply to Allen and Marion counties.

“If it’s good for the goose then it should be good for the gander,” Smith told House members. “If it’s good for my county then it should be applied to all of the counties in this state.”

That amendment was defeated on a 64-22 vote.

Smith’s second amendment would have sent the bill to an interim study committee. Dvorak told House members that passing legislation that alters the judicial system without first going through a study committee has not been done in Indiana.

“This is an unprecedented political grab to appoint political judges at the trial court level,” Dvorak said.

The South Bend representative also raised the issue of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s alleged support for the legislation.

During committee testimony, Aylesworth said he authored the bill after speaking with the “governor’s office.” According to Aylesworth, those in Holcomb’s office were not pleased with the candidates for judicial office recommended by the JNCs in Lake and St. Joseph counties.

However, a spokeswoman for Holcomb twice told Indiana Lawyer that the Republican governor’s office did not request the changes to the commissions. Dvorak and Smith likewise said they heard directly from Holcomb that he was not aware of the bill and that his office had not requested it.

Aylesworth later told the South Bend Tribune that he “misspoke” and that it was “friends” and “supporters” of the governor who raised the issue.

“We should do what is best for the citizens of this state and not what is part of our political agenda,” Smith said Thursday.

HB 1453 must go before the full House a second time for a final vote before proceeding to the Senate.  The House is scheduled to reconvene Monday, but a bill calendar had not been released at IL deadline.

The legislation comes as the St. Joseph County JNC is also in the middle of litigation.

Commission member Joseph Grabill and the county Republican Party filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, that two members of the commission are ineligible under law and that the commission was politically biased against Republican candidates as it reviewed applicants to succeed Judge Jane Woodward Miller. Already the JNC has named five finalists for Miller’s vacancy, but a special judge blocked Holcomb from naming a judge to fill the vacancy.

The commission has filed a motion to reconsider, while Grabill, the only remaining plaintiff, has moved for summary judgment. That case is Grabill, et al. v. Holcomb, et al., 50C01-2012-PL-000024.

Also pending in the Indiana Legislature is Senate Joint Resolution 16, which would fundamentally change the merit selection process for Indiana’s appellate courts through a constitutional amendment.

That legislation garnered public opposition from the Indiana State Bar Association. The Senate Judiciary Committee had not set the resolution for a hearing at IL deadline.

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