Bill to alter Lake, St. Joseph judicial selection rankles local bench, bar

Legal professionals in Lake and St. Joseph counties are raising serious concerns about advancing legislation that would change the structure of the local judicial nominating commissions that shape the state trial courts in the northern Indiana counties.

Lawyers and lawmakers from Lake and St. Joseph counties say House Bill 1453 is merely an effort to increase the number of Republican jurists appointed to the Superior Court benches in the predominantly Democratic counties.

Rep. Mike Aylesworth presented HB 1453 to the House Judiciary Committee, which on Tuesday advanced the bill on a 6-4 party-line vote. Before he began his presentation of the bill, the Hebron Republican said he was expecting and prepared for strong opposition from the Democratic Party.

Under HB 1453, the nine-member Lake County JNC and the seven-member St. Joseph County JNC each would be reduced to five members. The Lake County body is currently comprised of four attorneys elected by the local bar and four nonattorneys appointed by the county commissioners. In St. Joseph County, the commission is comprised of three elected attorneys and three nonattorneys.

The final member of each JNC is a justice of the Indiana Supreme Court – Justice Geoffrey Slaughter in Lake County and Justice Christopher Goff in St. Joseph County. The justices chair the commissions.

Under HB 1453, however, three commission members, including the chair, would be appointed by the governor and the remaining two would be appointed by county commissioners. The provisions governing the election of attorney members and the appointment of nonattorney members would be repealed.

Also, the bill would require the commissions to submit to the governor the names of the five most qualified candidates to fill a Superior Court vacancy. Already the St. Joseph County body submits five names to the governor, but the Lake County JNC submits three.

The original language of HB 1453 does not include a Supreme Court representative on the JNCs. An amendment that was passed Tuesday, however, would make the chief justice or his/her designee an ex officio member of the commissions.

Aylesworth said the concept of “restructuring” the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission came from conversations with Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office. However, no one from the governor’s office testified on HB 1453, and a spokeswoman said Tuesday the office did not request the legislation.

According to Aylesworth, the governor’s office said it was not satisfied with the judicial recommendations coming out of Lake County, believing them to be “skewed” in a way that kept the best candidates from taking the bench. Representatives from St. Joseph later asked to join the legislation, he said.

In addition to Lake and St. Joseph counties, superior court judges in Allen and Marion counties are appointed using merit-based selection processes rather than judicial elections. Indiana Republicans have been previously accused of implementing merit selection only in counties with large Democratic populations, an effort that Democrats say is an attempt to keep members of their party from electing Democrats to the bench.

Aylesworth faced tough questioning along those lines on Tuesday, with committee members Reps. Vernon Smith and Ryan Dvorak raising accusations of partisan and possibly racist motives. On the latter suggestion – which came from Smith, a Democrat from Gary – Aylesworth said the issue of race never came up in his discussions on the legislation. He added that he and committee chair Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, find discrimination “reprehensible.”

Angela Jones, a lawyer who chairs the Lake County Bar Association, testified that members of her local bar oppose the measure. Additionally, the James C. Kimbrough Bar Association and the Rudy Lozano Bar Association – which represent Black and Hispanic lawyers, respectively – also oppose the measure.

Dvorak, of South Bend, said he has heard similar opposition from the St. Joseph County bench and bar, though they were not given enough notice to send a representative to testify in-person.

Jones pointed to what she said are the three main issues with the legislation: a potential infringement on separation of powers, a potential lack of attorney involvement and a potential lack of diversity on the commissions. The current laws governing merit-based judicial selection counties were drafted to protect each of those three considerations, she said.

Dvorak emphatically asked committee members to defeat the bill, pointing to a lawsuit challenging the appointment of judges to the South Bend courts. That suit was brought by commission member Joseph Grabill and the St. Joseph County Republican Party.

The lawmaker described the lawsuit as being a purely partisan effort, reading a media quote from the local GOP leader who raised concerns about only “liberal” candidates advancing in the nomination process. Aylesworth, however, read a letter from an anonymous Lake County lawyer who claimed that some lawyers refrain from applying for judicial vacancies because the process is perceived as partisan and skewed from the outset.

In St. Joseph County, a special judge blocked Holcomb from filling a vacancy on the Superior Court created by the retirement of Judge Jane Woodward Miller. The local JNC has already submitted the names of five candidates to fill that vacancy to the governor, and on Monday the commission asked Special Judge Curtis Palmer to reconsider its injunction.

That case is Grabill, et al. v. Holcomb, et al., 50C01-2012-PL-000024.

With the committee’s endorsement, HB 1453 will now go to the full House for further discussion, possible amendment and a vote.

The bill advances as another measure in the statehouse targeting judicial selection has sparked outcry and vocal opposition from the Indiana State Bar Association.

Senate Joint Resolution 16 proposes a constitutional amendment that would eliminate public retention votes for appellate judges and justices of the Indiana Supreme Court and reduce attorney representation on the Judicial Nominating Commission in favor of members appointed by top lawmakers.

The proposal also would require appellate judges be confirmed and retained by chambers of the Indiana General Assembly.

ISBA warned last week the proposal would “politicize” the selection of appellate judges and risk the independence of the judiciary.

SJR 16 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

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