Holcomb signs bill changing Lake, St. Joe JNCs

The structure of judicial selection in Lake and St. Joseph counties will soon change now that Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has signed controversial legislation changing the composition of the judicial selection panels in the northern Indiana counties.

Holcomb on Thursday signed House Enrolled Act 1453, authored by Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron. The proposal changes the makeup of the Lake and St. Joseph County judicial nominating commissions and eliminates the input of lawyers who currently choose panel members. It also reduces requirements for attorney representation on the commissions.

The bill was declared an emergency, meaning it can take effect upon passage.

The as-enacted version of the legislation sets each panel at seven members tasked with nominating five candidates to the governor when judicial vacancies occur. The governor will appoint three members of each panel while county commissioners will appoint another three. A justice of the Indiana Supreme Court will chair the commission and cast tie-breaking votes.

In each county, one member of the JNC must be an attorney, one of the governor’s appointees must be a woman and one of the commissioners’ appointees must be a minority.

Before HEA 1453, the Lake County JNC had nine members: four attorneys, four nonattorneys and Justice Geoffrey Slaughter. The governing statute also set diversity benchmarks.

The St. Joe body had seven members, including three attorneys, three nonattorneys and Justice Christopher Goff. However, the St. Joe JNC has recently been operating with only five members after two were disqualified. 

The Lake County panel was previously tasked with submitting three names to the governor for consideration, while the St. Joseph County panel submitted five.

HEA 1453 was enacted despite widespread opposition to the legislation from judges, lawyers and lawmakers from the northern Indiana counties. The local benches and bars claimed they were not consulted or informed about the bill before it was introduced, while lawmakers made allegations that the legislation was intended to strip diversity and increase Republican control over judicial selection.

Aylesworth, however, repeatedly characterized his legislation as a simple “reset.” He said he’d heard from local lawyers who felt the judicial selection processes in those counties were unfair and politically biased. However, Aylesworth declined to reveal who those lawyers were, saying they feared reprisal.

The Indiana State Bar Association also publicly opposed the bill, saying it “unnecessarily politicizes the vetting process for judicial candidates and shifts that responsibility to the executive branch.” The ISBA said the previous system was not broken and did not need to be fixed.

It was unclear whether Holcomb would sign the legislation, as he did not respond to previous IL requests for comment. However, his name has been associated with the bill since it was introduced, when Aylesworth said the governor’s office had asked him to draft it.

Holcomb denied that he was involved in any discussions about the legislation, and Aylesworth later said he misspoke. It wasn’t the governor’s office that asked for the change, the lawmaker said, but rather supporters of the governor.

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