Council resolution is latest effort to upend merit selection in Lake County

The Lake County Council has joined the push to give local residents the ability to elect their superior court judges rather than have the governor select the community’s judicial officers.

A resolution passed by the council on March 8 states the council’s support for superior court judicial elections and calls on the Indiana General Assembly to enact legislation establishing the election procedure.

Introduced by Democratic council member Charlie Brown, the resolution passed on a 5-2 party line vote, according to the Times of Northwest Indiana.

Charlie Brown

Brown said Lake County residents should be able to elect who they want in their courtrooms instead of the governor.

“The governor makes the choice (of who will serve on the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission), then the governor controls who will be presented to him,” Brown said. “After the Judicial Nominating Commission has their meeting, they send three or five names to the governor, then the governor selects who will be appointed as a judge.”

Republican Christian Jorgensen, an attorney who serves on the council, voted against the resolution. He did not respond to a request for comment from Indiana Lawyer, but speaking to the Northwest Indiana Times, he said he believed the current process is fair.

In particular, Jorgensen highlighted the February appointment of Rehana Adat-Lopez to fill the superior court vacancy created by the sudden death of Judge Diane Ross Boswell.

Brown said he is hopeful the passage of the resolution will lead to a change in state law.

Currently, Lake County — along with St. Joseph, Allen and Marion counties — is required to use a merit selection process rather than direct election of its superior court judges. Moreover, a change in the process that Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law in 2021 limits attorney input and membership on the nomination commissions in Lake and St Joseph counties.

The bill, authored by Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, ignited widespread opposition. Brown said he sees the imposition of merit selection and the changes to the local judicial selection commission as evidence of systemic partisanship bias against Lake County.

“It can only come down to pure politics,” Brown said. “Republicans don’t want Democratic judges elected. … That has been the undertone all along. Republicans don’t want the election of judges in Lake County because Lake County is predominantly a Democratic county.”

Prior to joining the county council, Brown served 36 years in the Legislature, where he routinely introduced a bill that would have allowed Lake County to elect all its judges. Under current state statute, only the Lake Circuit Court judge is elected.

Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, has introduced similar legislation, most recently Senate Bill 207 during the 2022 session. The bill did not get a hearing but Brown said in his conversations with Randolph, the state senator has said he believes the election push can get momentum if the Statehouse sees a groundswell of local support, which includes the council’s resolution.

In addition to the General Assembly and the county council, the fight for judicial elections is being waged in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. A lawsuit was filed in May 2021 by the city of Hammond and its mayor, Thomas McDermott, who is now challenging U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, for a U.S. Senate seat.

The lawsuit, City of Hammond, et al. v. Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission, et al., 2:21-cv-160,  claims the merit selection process has an “extreme and disparate impact on minority voters” and violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Indiana, a co-defendant named in the lawsuit, is scheduled to file its answer to the complaint Friday. The document was not posted on PACER by Indiana Lawyer deadline.

Asked if he was confident that merit selection would be overturned and that Lake County residents would be able to elect their judges, Brown said, “Yes, I am. Of course, it would help if we have a Democratic governor.”

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