State seeks to end lawsuit against Lake County judicial nominating process

In response to a lawsuit challenging judicial selection in Lake County, the state of Indiana is claiming the judicial nominating process does not violate the Constitution or federal voting laws and asserting the court should enter judgment in the case against the plaintiffs.

Indiana’s answer to the lawsuit filed by the city of Hammond, its mayor, Thomas McDermott and a registered voter, Eduardo Fontanez, was filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. The state does not raise any counterclaims and instead maintains it acted reasonably and in good faith. Also, the state argues it is immune from the lawsuit under the 11th Amendment’s grant of sovereign immunity.

Hammond and the other plaintiffs in City of Hammond  et al. v. State of Indiana et al., 2:21-cv-160, are wanting the judicial nominating process for selecting and retaining superior court judges to be replaced by judicial elections.

In their amended complaint, the plaintiffs argue the judicial selection process has “systematically disenfranchised” minority voters. The state has “taken away the right to vote” for superior court judges in Lake, Marion, St. Joseph and Allen counties, which are home to 66% of Indiana’s Black residents. Conversely, about 82% of white, non-Hispanic voters in Indiana can elect their superior court judges.

The lawsuit was sparked by House Enrolled Act 1453, which gave the governor more control over the appointment of members to the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission.

Along with the lawsuit, Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, filed legislation which would enable Lake County residents to elect all their judges, but the bill did not get a hearing during the 2022 General Assembly session. Also last week, the Lake County Council passed a resolution in support of judicial elections.

First filed in May 2021, the lawsuit named the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission as the sole defendant. However, when the plaintiffs amended their complaint in December 2021 they added the state of Indiana, Secretary of State Holli Sullivan and the Lake County Board of Elections as defendants.

Also, the amended complaint incorporates a new violation that is leveled only against the state. The plaintiffs assert that because the judicial nominating process occurs only in the counties with high minority populations, residents in those counties, including Lake County, have lesser and unequal voting rights which violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“By selecting implementing lesser voting rights only in high minority counties, Indiana has imposed a substantial burden on minority residents,” the plaintiffs argue. “This is not a mere inconvenience, but rather entirely blocks the rights of voters in high minority counties to vote on Superior court Judges of their choice or to run for election.”

On the single count solely against the state, the plaintiffs are asking the federal court to enjoin the placement of any Lake County Superior Court judge position on a ballot for retention vote. In addition, the plaintiffs want the court to provide the state with an opportunity to enact a voting procedure for Lake County Superior Court judges that that “does not violate the VRA which would presumably be free and open elections.”

The state denied the nominating process violates the Voting Rights Act or is otherwise unlawful.

Representing the plaintiffs are Bose McKinney & Evans in Indianapolis and the Law Office of Roy Dominguez in Merrillville. The Lake County Board of Elections are represented by Tolbert & Tolbert in Gary. The state of Indiana and Sullivan are represented by the Indiana Attorney General.

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