Continuing the debate over merit selection versus election of Indiana’s trial court judges, the Lake County commissioners have approved a resolution calling for the Indiana General Assembly to allow county residents to vote on their superior court judges.
The commissioners voted 2-1 on July 20 in favor of a resolution calling for the end of merit selection in Indiana’s second-largest county, according to the Times of Northwest Indiana. The vote was split along party lines, with Democratic commissioners Mike Repay and Kyle Allen Sr. supporting the resolution and Republican Commissioner Jerry Tippy opposing it, the NWI Times reported.
“… (I)n order to give Lake County residents the same voice in the selection of its judges as a vast majority of fellow Hoosiers, the Lake County Board of Commissioners supports the election of all Superior Court Judges in Lake County,” according to the resolution.
In Lake County — along with Allen, Marion and St. Joseph counties — superior court judges are named through a merit-based selection process in which a panel interviews applicants to fill judicial vacancies and makes recommendations to the governor, who makes the final selection on new judges. The selected judges then sit for periodic, nonpartisan retention votes.
In all other Indiana counties, superior court judges are elected and reelected via partisan campaigns.
Merit selection is also used for Indiana’s appellate courts. However, its use on the trial bench has long been a subject of intense debate with heavy racial undertones.
The debate centers on the fact that the four counties that use merit selection are counties with some of the highest minority populations in the state.
According to the NWI Times, Lake County Councilman David Hamm stated in March that 85% of Indiana’s Black population lives in those four counties. The Lake County Council has also passed a resolution in favor of superior court elections.
The debate intensified last year when House Enrolled Act 1453 was enacted. That bill changed the composition of the judicial nominating commissions in Lake and St. Joseph counties by reducing mandatory attorney and minority representation on the commissions.
Under the legislation, the JNCs in Lake and St. Joseph counties are now each comprised of seven members, three of whom are appointed by the governor, three of whom are appointed by the county commissioners and one Supreme Court justice serving as a tie-breaker. One member of each JNC must be an attorney, and both the governor and the commissioners must each appoint a minority.
After interviewing judicial applicants, the JNCs must submit five names to the governor, who makes the final selection.
Before HEA 1453, the Lake County commission had nine members, including four attorneys, while the St. Joseph County commission had seven members, including three attorneys.
The bill was widely opposed by judges, lawyers and lawmakers from the two northern Indiana counties, who argued that attorney input in the judicial selection process was vital. It was also heavily criticized as a veiled effort to increase the number of Republicans on the northern Indiana benches, and to dilute minority influence.
However, bill author Rep. Michael Aylesworth, R-Hebron, maintained the legislation was a legislative “reset” that was necessary to ensure fairness in the judicial selection process.
Following the bill’s enactment, Thomas McDermott, the Democratic mayor of Hammond, and a Lake County attorney filed a lawsuit seeking the direct election of the county’s superior court judges.
The state sought to end the lawsuit in its March answer. The case remained pending in the Northern Indiana District Court as of Monday.
Meanwhile, merit-based selection has continued in Lake County.
The most recent appointee was Judge Rehana Adat-Lopez, who was selected to fill the vacancy created by the death of Judge Diane Ross Boswell. Adat-Lopez, who was born in Uganda, is the first judge of Asian descent to sit on the Lake Superior Court bench.
Repay and Allen, the Lake County commissioners who supported the direct-election resolution, said they do not have issues with past or present superior court judges who were appointed through merit selection, according to the NWI Times. Instead, they are maintaining that Lake County residents should be allowed to vote for their judges.
Tippy, the GOP commissioner who opposed the resolution, said merit selection helps maintain partisan balance on the bench, the Times reported.
While superior court judges in Allen, Lake, Marion and St. Joseph counties are appointed through merit selection, the circuit judges in those counties are elected. In Lake County, Circuit Judge Marissa McDermott will be on the general election ballot this year, as will Marion Circuit Judge Tiffany Vivo and St. Joseph Circuit Judge John Broden.
Allen Circuit Judge Wendy Davis was elected in 2020 and is not yet up for reelection.