Judge blocks Holcomb appointment to St. Joseph Superior Court

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to remove erroneous references to Gov. Eric Holcomb appointing non-attorney members to the St. Joseph County Judicial Nominating Commission. Those members are appointed by a local committee.

A northern Indiana judge has issued an injunction prohibiting Gov. Eric Holcomb from appointing a new judge to the St. Joseph Superior Court while a lawsuit filed against the local judicial nominating commission and the governor by a fellow Republican appointee to that commission proceeds.

The case brought by St. Joseph Judicial Nominating Commission member Joseph Grabill was venued to neighboring Marshall County, where Circuit Judge Curtis Palmer issued the order Tuesday. Palmer also found at least one member of the commission is ineligible to serve.

The lawsuit was brought against Holcomb and the St. Joseph Judicial Nominating Commission by Grabill and the St. Joseph County Republican Party. Palmer’s order found Grabill had standing to proceed with the suit but dismissed the local GOP for lack of standing.

As in Marion, Lake and Allen counties, St. Joseph Superior Court judges are appointed by the governor upon the recommendations made by local nominating commissions. In St. Joseph County, that commission is comprised of three attorney members selected by the local bar and three non-lawyer members appointed by a local commission. The commission is chaired by Indiana Supreme Court Justice Christopher Goff.

Grabill’s suit contends, among other things, that two members are ineligible under the law and, as the South Bend Tribune reported last month, the commission was “‘improperly politically biased’ against Republican candidates in its selection process and seeks to vacate the panel of candidates chosen to fill the judicial opening” created by the retirement of Jane Woodward Miller.

In September, the panel submitted the names of five finalists to Holcomb: magistrate judges Andre Gammage and Elizabeth Hardtke; solo practitioner Jeffrey Kimball; Anderson Agostino & Keller attorney Stephanie Nemeth; and South Bend corporation counsel Stephanie Steele.

Palmer previously extended the 60-day window Holcomb has under law to make appointments but blocked Holcomb’s authority in his order Tuesday. “A preliminary injunction is hereby issued prohibiting the Defendant Governor Eric Holcomb from appointing a new judicial officer to the St. Joseph County Superior Court until further Order of this Court,” Palmer wrote.

The injunction will be in place “until a validly constituted Commission (or quorum thereof) submits a new list of five nominations to the Governor,” the judge wrote, agreeing with Grabill that appointee David Anderson Hooker is ineligible to serve as a nonlawyer member.

“Hooker … is admitted to the practice of law in the State of Georgia and therefore ineligible to sit on the Commission,” Palmer found. The judge also gave Grabill 10 days to challenge the eligibility of another commission member. “Evidence submitted with the Plaintiff’s Verified Complaint suggests Commission attorney member Charles Lahey may be serving a second consecutive four year term in violation of statute.”

A spokesman for Gov. Eric Holcomb declined to comment on the order.

The other members of the commission are attorney members Charles Leone and Douglas Sakaguchi, and non-lawyer member Karen Barnett.

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