Steele appointed to St. Joe bench after lawsuit delayed selection process

The South Bend city attorney has been selected to fill a vacancy on the St. Joseph Superior Court.

Stephanie Steele will fill the seat vacated by now-Senior Judge Jane Woodward Miller, who retired Dec. 31. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Steele’s appointment Wednesday.

Currently corporation counsel for South Bend, Steele was previously the city’s assistant attorney. Before that, she was a deputy prosecutor for St. Joseph County.

Steele earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and her law degree from Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law. She was admitted to the Indiana bar in 2010, according to the Indiana Roll of Attorneys.

Steele was selected from a group of five finalists whose names were twice submitted to Holcomb for consideration.

The St. Joseph County Judicial Nominating Commission first nominated Steele, Jeffrey Kimmell, Stephanie Nemeth and magistrates Andre Gammage and Elizabeth Hardtke to fill Miller’s vacancy in September. However, the governor was blocked from selecting a new judge from among those finalists when JNC nonlawyer member Joseph Grabill filed a lawsuit challenging the eligibility of two other commission members.

Ultimately, Judge Curtis Palmer disqualified nonlawyer member David Anderson Hooker because he is licensed to practice law in Georgia, but not in Indiana. Also, lawyer Charles Lahey resigned and was disqualified because he was serving a second consecutive four-year term on the JNC in violation of state statute.

The Indiana Supreme Court reappointed Miller to her seat on the bench as a judge pro tempore effective Feb. 15 through May 1. Meanwhile, the JNC resubmitted the five finalists to Holcomb after re-voting on them without Hooker or Lahey.

Steele will be sworn in to the bench on a date to be determined, Holcomb’s office said.

Leaders of the St. Joseph County Bar Association say Steele is the third Black judge in the county to be appointed through the merit selection process, joining former judges Roland Chamblee and J. Chester Allen. She is the first Black female judge appointed through merit selection in the county, according to bar executive director Amy McGuire.

McGuire also noted Steele was the first Black female president of the St. Joe Bar. Additionally, she was hired as corporation counsel by former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is now serving in the Biden administration as transportation secretary after an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for president.

Steele’s appointment comes as the composition of the St. Joseph JNC, as well as that of the Lake County commission, could soon be changed by legislation.

Despite widespread opposition from local lawyers, judges, bar groups and Democratic lawmakers, House Bill 1453  is on track to be passed by the Indiana General Assembly. If enacted, the bill would cut attorney input on the JNCs and strip language setting requirements for diversity and bipartisanship on the Lake County commission.

Holcomb has not responded to IL requests for comment on whether he would sign HB 1453. At IL deadline, the bill had been sent back to the House with a Senate amendment, and a motion to concur with the amendment had been filed.

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