Stafford: Crooked Lake, St. Joe judicial bill merits a veto

Imagine a form of government where you can whisper to a lawmaker that a state agency is against you, then that lawmaker writes a bill that mugs the agency, and no one knows you were ever there.

We have that system, and that’s what’s happening to the Lake and St. Joseph Judicial Nominating Commissions. Someone or multiple someones got to Rep. Mike Aylesworth and nagged about how unfair it is, how superior court judge candidates are nominated in these counties. Aylesworth, a Republican from Hebron, refuses to say who complained, or what the complaint was, exactly, because in a supermajority form of government, things like process, stakeholder input, transparency or even reason don’t matter. When you drive a steamroller, you don’t need to consult the pavement.

Aylesworth’s bill removes lawyers from their traditional role of choosing attorney members of these commissions. It’s a “reset,” he testified, and resets are good sometimes. Really. That’s about it. No matter that these commissions had performed without complaint for decades. But someone had grumbled to Aylesworth, so almost the entire General Assembly supermajority took up for the secret grumblers and ignored overwhelming public opposition. The supermajority hijacked these commissions, effectively giving Gov. Eric Holcomb both nominating and appointment authority over judges in those counties.

You can listen to hours of testimony on this House Bill 1453, and the conclusion is clear: No matter how many stakeholders speak out on matters that affect them, this Statehouse supermajority just doesn’t care.

A parade of attorneys from Lake and St. Joe counties testified against this bill before hostile Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne. Most spoke in disbelief that this was happening without any prior consideration. They explained why they had taken their time and traveled all the way down to Indianapolis, some twice, to tell lawmakers why this is a bad idea and testify that the current system works. It was enough to give any reasonable person pause. But this is the Indiana Legislature we’re talking about.

Lake County Bar Association President Angela Jones implored Brown’s committee to hear the many voices opposed and reject the bill. “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,’” she said.

Those disappointing voices? They’re right. The supermajority humored the objectors, then steamrolled forth. Republican Sen. Sue Glick of LaGrange was a commendable exception, breaking from the monolithic majority to cast sensible votes against this nonsense in committee and on the Senate floor.

Maybe there are problems with these commissions. Maybe reforms are needed. There are legislative procedures to involve stakeholders when such significant structural reforms are proposed. Yet here we are, making law through whispers, rumors, innuendo and, the grapevine says, the sour grapes of rejected judge candidates. Hey, if anonymous whispers are sufficient for lawmaking, they are fair game for commentary.

At this stage, whether judges in Lake and St. Joe counties are chosen through merit selection, by voters or by random draw from a big hat misses the bigger picture: People with a stake in things ought to get more weight when they show up and speak up than Rep. Aylesworth’s nameless ax-grinders who are too cowardly to do either.

Holcomb’s silence on whether he supports this bill suggests he’ll take it and disregard the underlying corruption. But he should take a principled stand and veto this farce when it comes to his desk unless he, like the supermajority, just doesn’t care.•

• Dave Stafford[email protected] — is editor of Indiana Lawyer. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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