St. Joseph JNC accepting new applications as lawsuit, legislation persist

As litigation and legislation that could change the structure of judicial selection in St. Joseph County proceeds, the St. Joseph County Judicial Nominating Commission is accepting applications to fill a vacancy that will occur in the spring.

Indiana Supreme Court Justice Christopher Goff, who chairs the St. Joseph JNC, announced Monday that the commission is accepting applications to fill the vacancy created by the retirement Judge Margot Reagan, who will step down from the bench May 31.

Applications must be submitted through the Indiana Courts Portal by noon EDT March 19.

Per Indiana statute, the St. Joseph JNC is tasked with reviewing candidates for vacancies on the local Superior Court and submitting to the governor “the five most highly qualified candidates from among those eligible.” The names and written evaluations of the candidates for the South Bend courts must remain confidentiality, so a public meeting is not convened to interview the candidates. Instead, the commission must publicly disclose the list of five nominees, and written evaluations will then be posted online.

Information about the application process can be found online. Questions can be directed to Dave Kuhnz at [email protected] or 317-233-3018.

The vacancy comes as efforts to change judicial selection in the northern Indiana county are proceeding in both the legislative and judicial branches of Indiana government.

In the Indiana Legislature, the Indiana House last month passed House Bill 1453, which would change the structure of the JNCs in St. Joseph and Lake counties. Those counties, as well as Allen and Marion counties, select Superior Court judges through a merit selection process rather than through judicial elections.

Under the bill authored by Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, both JNCs would be reduced to five members, with three of those members – including the commission chairs – appointed by the governor. Notably, the bill would strip requirements that an equal number of commission members be attorneys and nonattorneys.

HB 1453 has drawn strong ire from Democrats who say the bill is partisan attempt to put more Republicans on the bench in the northern Indiana counties. Black lawmakers also raised discrimination concerns, noting that Lake and St. Joseph counties – along with Marion and Allen – have the highest minority populations in the state.

Aylesworth, however, has maintained his bill is a simple “reset” of a merit selection process that has not been updated for decades. HB 1453 has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which had not assigned the bill a hearing date at IL deadline.

Meanwhile in the courts, a member of the St. Joseph JNC, Joseph Grabill, filed a lawsuit last November challenging the eligibility of two commission members. Specifically, Grabill alleged that member David Anderson Hooker is ineligible to serve as a nonlawyer commissioner because he is licensed to practice law in Georgia, and that lawyer member Charles Lahey “may be serving a second four year term in violation of statute.”

The lawsuit disrupted the process of naming a successor to now-Senior Judge Jane Woodward Miller, who retired Dec. 31. Prior to the lawsuit, the JNC had submitted the names of five finalists to succeed Miller to Gov. Eric Holcomb, but the special judge presiding over Grabill’s lawsuit issued an injunction preventing the Republican governor from naming Miller’s successor. 

After the injunction was issued, the Indiana Supreme Court reappointed Miller to her previous seat on the bench as a judge pro tempore, effective Feb. 15 through May 1.

The same five names were resubmitted to the governor in February after “a quorum of eligible Commission members convened for an executive session and unanimously voted to confirm the same five nominees previously advanced to fill the judicial vacancy,” according to the Indiana Supreme Court. That quorum included all JNC members except Hooker and Lahey.

The five candidates being considered to fill Miller’s vacancy include:

  • Magistrate Judge Andre Gammage
  • Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Hardtke
  • Solo practitioner Jeffrey Kimball
  • Anderson Agostino & Keller attorney Stephanie Nemeth
  • South Bend corporation counsel Stephanie Steele

The litigation is continuing in Marshall Circuit Court. A hearing is set for 1:30 p.m. March 9 in the case, Grabill, et al. v. Holcomb, et al., 50C01-2012-PL-000024.

IL editor Dave Stafford contributed to this report.

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