Senate panel narrowly advances Lake, St. Joe judicial nominating bill

A bill that would change how superior court judges are nominated in Lake and St. Joseph counties was uniformly opposed by lawyers and judges from those counties in a Senate hearing Wednesday but narrowly advanced on a 5-4 vote.

Lawmakers amended House Bill 1453 before moving it to the full Senate, but the changes did nothing to satisfy attorneys, judges and representatives of local and state bar associations who questioned why the measure was needed and argued the legislation stripped diversity requirements.

Under the amended bill that moved to the full Senate, the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission would be reduced from nine members to five and the St. Joseph commission would be reduced from seven members to five. The amendment sought to address concerns that attorney membership was being eliminated by ensuring two members would be attorneys and the fifth member of each committee would be the chief justice or her designee.

The justice would vote only in the event of a tie. Members would be selected by the governor and local elected officials. Currently, county attorneys select a portion of members on those commissions.

“It’s not a good bill, it’s a not a good bill, it’s a not a good bill,” said Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, a practicing Lake County attorney who echoed extensive testimony from opponents who said the proposal would inject politics into judicial selection in the northern Indiana counties. Randolph also vouched for the judiciary where he practices that’s been appointed through merit selection by Indiana governors, noting there are currently nine Republican and seven Democratic judges in the northwest Indiana county that’s traditionally been a Democratic stronghold.

“It touches me personally because of the personal connection I have with Lake County,” said Randolph, who said no one had told him of specific problems requiring changing the system. “We’ve got good, solid people, and there’s no need to upset the so-called apple cart.”

Opponents said Gov. Eric Holcomb, who would appoint members to the panels and also choose the judge those panels recommended, would have too much power under the proposed system. They also criticized the bill for removing diversity requirements on the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission.

Lake County Bar Association President Angela Jones said she was never notified of the proposed changes until the day before the bill was heard in the House Judiciary Committee, and no one had ever informed the local bar there were problems with the JNC or sought stakeholder input.

“Almost every entity affected by this bill opposes it,” Jones testified. “What’s the problem? I haven’t heard it yet. … I don’t know the political affiliation of my judges. That is huge.” HB 1453, she said, “obliterates that completely.”

“I would hope that you would vote no,” Jones said. “It’s extremely disappointing that I hear things like, ‘You’re wasting your time, it’s a supermajority, good luck, Angela, they’re going to cram it through if they want to.’ … It’s a bad one. It’s a bad bill.”

Jones’ remarks capped off impassioned testimony against the bill from representatives of the Indiana State Bar Association, St. Joseph County Bar Association, the James Kimbrough Bar Association, the Rudy Lozano Bar Association, and other lawyers and judges from Lake and St. Joseph counties, including St. Joseph Superior Chief Judge Elizabeth Hurley.

Bill author Michael Aylesworth, R-Hebron, characterized the legislation as a “reset.”

“It’s good to reset things every few years, and it’s time both these commissions got reset,” he said, adding the intent of the bill was to “take any personal biases or prejudices” out of the judicial nominating process.

Aylesworth previously testified in the House that he introduced HB 1453 at the request of Holcomb’s office, but he later walked that back after Holcomb’s office said it had not requested the legislation. Aylesworth told senators Wednesday that he had letters from unnamed attorneys who support the bill but who he said feared “recriminations” for speaking out.

“So there’s secret testimony?” Democratic Sen. Tim Lanane of Anderson asked. Chairwoman Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, declined to reveal the letters she said Aylesworth had shared with her.

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said the bill stripped away assurances of ethnic, gender and partisan diversity on the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission. “One thing I always thought I’d never experience in this body is to step back the progress we’ve made on diversity. This is a purposeful step back,” he said.

One person testified in favor of the legislation: St. Joseph Judicial Nominating Commission member Joseph Grabill, who recently successfully sued to remove a member serving as a nonlawyer member who was licensed to practice in Georgia. He also challenged the eligibility of another commission member.

Attorneys don’t want to change the current system, Grabill said, because “they want to hand-pick their own decision-makers.”

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