Finalists to succeed St. Joseph Judge Reagan named after 2 members disqualified

Four magistrates and one lawyer have been named as finalists to fill an upcoming vacancy on the St. Joseph Superior Court. The finalists were announced by a judicial selection panel that was reduced to five members after two were disqualified.

The St. Joseph Superior Court Judicial Nominating Commission announced Monday that magistrates Cristal Brisco, Keith Doi, Andre Gammage and Julie Verheye and lawyer Stephanie Steele advanced to the final round of consideration to fill the seat that will open when Judge Margot Reagan retires.

The names of the five finalists will be submitted to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, who will make the final selection on Reagan’s successor. Reagan will retire May 31.

The commission interviewed candidates for Reagan’s seat on Monday, but by statute the names of the candidates and the interviews were confidential, as were the JNC’s deliberations.

Notably, Monday’s nominations were voted on by only five members of the St. Joseph JNC, which by statute is currently comprised of seven members. Missing from the panel were Charles Lahey and David Anderson Hooker, former members of the commission who last month were disqualified from continuing to serve.

Nonlawyer member Joseph Grabill sued Holcomb and the JNC, alleging Hooker was ineligible to serve as a nonlawyer member because he is licensed to practice law in Georgia, though not in Indiana. Also, Grabill alleged Lahey was impermissibly serving a second four-year term on the commission in violation of statute.

Grabill’s lawsuit prompted a trial court to issue an injunction prohibiting Holcomb from naming a successor to now-Senior Judge Jane Woodward Miller, who retired Dec. 31. Finalists to succeed Miller had already been submitted to Holcomb’s office when the injunction was issued, and the commission later resubmitted the same names to the governor, this time without the ousted commissioners. The finalists to succeed Miller are Gammage, Steele, magistrate Elizabeth Hardtke and attorneys Jeffrey Kimball and Stephanie Nemeth.

Meanwhile, Miller was reappointed to her former court as a judge pro tempore, effective Feb. 15 through May 1.

In a March 10 order, Judge Curtis Palmer of the Marshall Circuit Court entered an order granting Grabill’s motion for summary judgment and officially disqualifying Hooker and Lahey from serving on the commission, though Lahey had already resigned on Feb. 3. The resubmitted names of finalists to succeed Miller is valid, Palmer ruled, dissolving the injunction and ordering Holcomb to name Miller’s successor by Thursday.

“This Court’s decision causes two vacancies on the St. Joseph Judicial Nominating Commission,” Palmer wrote. “The non-attorney vacancy shall be filled pursuant to the process set forth in IC 33-33-71-31 and the attorney vacancy shall be filled by a special election pursuant to IC 33-33-71-32(b) and IC 33-33-17-33.”

The case is Joseph Grabill v. Holcomb, et al., 50C01-2012-PL-24.

The members of the commission who participated in Monday’s vote and in the re-vote on Miller’s successor included Indiana Supreme Court Justice Christopher Goff, lawyer members Charles Leone and James (Jay) Lewis, and nonlawyer members Grabill and Karen Barnett.

Monday’s nominations also come as the composition of the judicial nominating commissions in both St. Joseph and Lake counties are under scrutiny.

A bill is advancing through the Indiana General Assembly that would reduce attorney input into the judicial selection process in those counties and would also strip language about bipartisanship and diversity in Lake County that many lawyers say is crucial to keeping the selection process fair.

Attorneys and judges from both counties who have spoken publicly about the legislation, House Bill 1453, have uniformly opposed it, as have Democratic lawmakers. But bill author Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, said he has received concerns about the fairness of the process from lawyers who wished to remain anonymous.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Sen. Greg Taylor, an Indianapolis Democrat, alleged Monday HB 1453 was driven by “nefarious” motives from candidates who lost out on judicial appointments. Senate sponsor Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, however, said Taylor was reading too much into the legislation.

The only public support for HB 1453 has come from Grabill, who testified in favor of the legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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