Lake, St. Joseph judicial selection bill advances with amendment

Legislation that would eliminate attorney input and increase the role of the governor and county officials in appointing commission members who nominate candidates for the trial court benches in Lake and St. Joseph counties continues to advance in the Indiana General Assembly despite vocal opposition from lawyers, judges and bar associations.

House Bill 1453 was ordered engrossed on second reading Thursday in the Indiana Senate after an amendment offered by Senate sponsor Rick Niemeyer of Lowell was approved.

The amendment would set the number of members of the Lake and the St. Joseph judicial nominating commission at seven rather than the proposed five while also requiring each panel to have at least two attorney members, one female and one minority member. The governor would appoint three of the seven members of each panel while county commissioners would appoint three members. Each panel would be chaired by a member of the Indiana Supreme Court who would vote only in the event of a tie.

The revisions would strip attorneys in each county of appointments to the commissions. Currently, Lake County attorneys vote to choose four of attorney members on the nine-member judicial nominating commission and St. Joseph lawyers vote for three lawyer members of that county’s seven-member commission. Local stakeholders currently appoint four nonlawyer members in Lake County and three in St. Joseph County.

The governor currently has no appointments to either commission. A spokesperson for Gov. Eric Holcomb did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment on the governor’s position on the bill Friday.

Critics of the bill say it would give the governor outsized influence over judicial selections in Lake and St. Joseph counties, because he would select half the voting members of each panel, which recommend finalists to the governor to appoint judges to fill court vacancies. The Indiana State Bar Association and the Lake County Bar Association have formally opposed the bill.

Bill author Rep. Michael Aylesworth, R-Hebron, originally presented the bill as having the backing of Holcomb’s office, but Aylesworth later clarified that it was supporters of the governor, not the governor himself, who requested the legislation. Holcomb’s office twice told Indiana Lawyer in February that the governor did not request HB 1453, nor did he know about it.

Aylesworth also has testified that his bill has been supported by attorneys he has heard from, though he has declined repeatedly in public hearings to name them, and no attorney has yet to testify in favor of the bill. However, seven lawyers, judges and bar association representatives who gave sometimes impassioned testimony at Senate hearing last month uniformly opposed the bill.

“When I first heard of this bill, my first thought was, ‘what a horrible idea,’” Mishawaka attorney Charlie Rice testified.

“We’ve got great judges …. We don’t think of our judges as Democrats or Republicans or anything but judges. … Merit selection works. Don’t do this,” Rice implored the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This is one of the great things about out county. Just don’t break this system. It works and it works superbly.”

After an afternoon of public opposition to the bill with just one speaker in favor, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the bill on a 5-4 vote. Republican Sen. Sue Glick, a practicing attorney from LaGrange, joined Democrats who opposed it.

While Niemeyer’s amendment aimed to address some of the criticism that opponents have leveled over the legislation’s elimination of gender and equity provisions, at least on the Lake County commission, Democratic Sen. Lonnie Randolph of East Chicago, a practicing attorney and Senate Judiciary Committee member, offered several amendments on the Senate floor Thursday that failed on largely party lines.

Randolph’s amendments would have struck language from the bill referencing Lake County or would have made the legislation also apply to judicial nominating commissions in Marion and Allen counties.

Noting there are currently four minority members on the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission, Randolph said in a statement the bill as amended “just isn’t a good move. It hurts Lake County and takes us backwards in terms of promoting diversity and ensuring adequate representation.

“Why the Indiana General Assembly has made a habit of constantly picking on Lake County — I don’t know,” the statement said. “What I do know is that the people of Lake County deserve to have a Commission that is reflective of their community. Every witness from Lake County who came down to testify on HB 1453 was in opposition to this bill. The fact that the General Assembly decided to advance this proposal despite local opposition is disappointing to see.”

The bill is scheduled for final reading Monday afternoon in the Senate.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to report final reading scheduled for Monday.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}