Lake County Bar: Judicial-selection bill an ‘abomination,’ ‘political power play’

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The Lake County Bar Association on Thursday issued the most damning rebuke to date of a bill in the Indiana General Assembly that would alter how judges in that county and St. Joseph County are selected. The northwest Indiana county’s bar called the bill “an abomination” and “a political power play by parties not even within Lake County to take even more power away from the people of Lake County in selecting their judges.”

The association of attorneys in Indiana’s second-largest county — and a longtime Democratic stronghold — issued a blistering condemnation of House Bill 1453.  The bill would overhaul judicial nomination commissions in Lake and St. Joseph counties, giving much voice in the process to the governor and the Indiana General Assembly while removing diversity requirements and requirements that half of the members of each commission be attorneys.

The bill “removes judicial independence, places power in the hands of politicians, removes diversity from the JNC, local control from the community, and removes attorneys completely from the process,” according to the statement issued by the Lake County Bar and signed by its president, Angela M. Jones, a private practitioner in Munster.

“Attorneys are a vital part of the merit selection process and are selected to represent the interests and reflect the expertise of the local bar. Local attorneys are uniquely qualified to advise the Governor because of their familiarity with the integrity, skill, and experience of their fellow members of the bar who are seeking judicial selection,” the letter says. “They understand the legal reasoning and understanding of the rule of law that judges must have. Finally, attorneys have an appreciation of temperament and sound judgement which is essential for a good judge.”

Moreover, the statement says the bill risks politicizing the judiciary. “Current legislation provides that members of the JNC, other than a judge or justice, may not hold any other elected public office, may not hold office in a political party or organization and may not be an employee of the state or of a political subdivision of the state, but HB 1453 does not contain these limitations. It also strips power from the judicial branch by completely removing the Chief Justice’s role in the JNC. Judges should not be selected by political appointees as this opens judges to the risk that they rule in certain ways to satisfy their appointers. They should remain independent and free from political pressure. Additionally, shifting the balance of power from the judicial branch to the executive branch threatens the checks and balances of our three-branch system of government.”

The Indiana State Bar Association also issued a statement Tuesday opposing HB 1453.

The bill’s author, Rep. Michael Aylesworth, R-Hebron, said he’d heard from Lake County lawyers that the results of the judicial selection process were a foregone conclusion before the process started. Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, and Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, later joined the legislation, and Teshka said the bill was driven by local constituents and attorneys who feared “reprisal” for supporting the legislation. Aylesworth supported that proposition, telling Indiana Lawyer that he was asked to reveal the names of attorneys who wrote letters in favor of his legislation, but he refused.

The bill passed the Indiana House on a 63-31 party-line vote Feb. 8. It has yet to be assigned to a committee in the Senate.

Meanwhile, a separate proposal in the Legislature has drawn opposition from bar groups. Senate Joint Resolution 16 would strip Hoosier voters of retention ballots for Indiana Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges while also overhauling the makeup of the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission to remove requirements that half of the panel consist of attorneys.

SJR 16 appears unlikely to be called for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee before deadlines for legislation to advance.

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