Indiana House sends Lake, St. Joe judicial selection bill to Holcomb

Despite final pleas from Lake County Democratic lawmakers to kill a controversial judicial selection bill that one said treats their county and St. Joseph County “as stepchildren,” the Indiana House voted Wednesday to agree to Senate amendments, sending House Bill 1453 to Gov. Eric Holcomb.

The bill as amended passed 52-33, with slightly more Republican opposition than when it initially cleared the House 63-31 in February. The proposal would change the makeup of the Lake and St. Joseph County judicial nominating commissions and eliminate the input of lawyers who currently choose four of nine panel members in Lake and two of five members in St. Joseph. It also reduces requirements for attorney representation on the commissions.

The proposal was uniformly opposed by local bar groups as well as the Indiana State Bar Association and attorneys who testified at Statehouse hearings on the bill.

Under Senate amendments agreed to by the House on Wednesday, each panel would have seven members and nominate five candidates to the governor when judicial vacancies occur. The governor also would appoint three members of each panel and county commissioners would appoint three members. A justice of the Indiana Supreme Court would chair the commission and cast tie-breaking votes.

Bill author Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, said the Senate amendment also requires that for each county, one of the members be an attorney, one of the governor’s appointees be a woman and one of the members appointed by county commissioners be a minority. The amendments were approved after protests from several lawmakers that the bill eliminated diversity requirements currently in place for members of the Lake County commission.

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said the amended bill was an improvement, “but as I said before, there was nothing that was broken, and it didn’t need to be fixed in the first place.” He urged lawmakers to defeat a measure that he said treated his home county “as stepchildren.”

Likewise, Rep. Ragen Hatcher, D-Gary, highlighted Indiana’s unique situation in which only its most diverse populations — those in the counties of Allen, Lake, Marion and St. Joseph — select judges through merit selection commissions rather than direct elections.

Hatcher said she would have supported the bill “if it would have allowed Lake and St. Joseph counties to vote for their judicial representatives,” as is the case for Indiana’s other 88 counties. She said Lake and St. Joseph voters deserve the same rights in selecting their judges as the rest of Indiana.

“Hopefully we will see a bill that will treat every county the same way in selecting judges,” Hatcher said.

Holcomb’s office has not responded to IL inquiries about whether the governor supports the bill.

After the vote, Hatcher issued a statement saying she was disappointed in the result and called out judicial nominating processes in the Hoosier State as unfair.

“… (T)he counties with the largest minority populations,” she said, “are being targeted by this unfair process of a nominating commission. All citizens should have the ability to select their judges and have some control of the bench that they appear in front of. These are their courts, their trials, and should be their judges.”

East Chicago Democratic Sen. Lonnie Randolph filed Senate Bill 31 this session that would have permitted voters in Lake County to directly elect superior court judges. The bill was not given a hearing.

“We already don’t give Hoosiers in Lake County the opportunity to elect their judges like the majority of the state — now we’re further stripping the community of power by … mandating that only one of the appointed members be from a minority group,” Randolph said in a press release.

“This is a regressive step that the people of Lake County do not support, and I’m disappointed that members of the General Assembly who don’t even live in my community or St. Joseph County fought to advance this legislation while knowing that locals oppose it. Now, the people of Lake and St. Joseph Counties are being denied democracy, as well as adequate representation in their judicial nominating process.”

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