Suit seeks direct election of Lake County judges, says merit selection discriminatory

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A federal lawsuit filed by the Democratic mayor of Hammond and a Lake County attorney argues that Indiana’s judicial nominating system that appoints judges in the state’s four most diverse counties is racially discriminatory. Judges in Lake County should be directly elected or judges statewide should be appointed through merit selection, the suit says.

“In Indiana, judicial nominating only occurs in select counties with high minority populations (including Lake County) that results in the abridgement of the right of minority residents to vote for judges,” the suit asserts. “ … Approximately 72% of minority residents in Indiana have had the right to vote for Superior Court judges taken away from them. In contrast, approximately 74% of white residents in Indiana retain the right to vote for Superior Court judges.”

The suit filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana also seeks an injunction against a controversial bill signed into law last month by Gov. Eric Holcomb that revamped the Lake County Judicial Nomination Commission.

“Plaintiffs seek an order that future Lake County Superior Court openings will be filled by election, not selection … Alternatively, Plaintiffs seek an order requiring the selection of all judges in all Indiana counties by judicial nominating commissions,” says the complaint filed by Bose McKinney & Evans attorneys Bryan Babb and Bradley Dick. The suit is City of Hammond, Thomas McDermott, in his official and personal capacities, and Eduardo Fontanez v. Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission, 2:21-cv-160.

The suit does not challenge the nomination and selection of current Lake County Superior Court judges and seeks only prospective relief in litigation that could have ramifications in all of Indiana’s most diverse large counties where superior court judges are chosen by merit selection rather than direct election. Such systems, rather than elections, are also used to select superior court judges in Marion, Allen and St. Joseph counties.

The suit says the Lake County judicial nominating statute under Indiana Code § 33-33-45 violates the Voting Rights Act and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Fontanez alleges in the suit that he has previously voted for Superior Court judges but has had that right taken away, and that he also sought to run for judge “but he has been precluded from doing so because Lake County Superior Court judges are not elected.”

The suit also seeks rulings against House Enrolled Act 1453, which altered the Lake County and St. Joseph County judicial nominating commissions. The changes were loudly opposed by attorneys and bar associations from those counties whose traditional authority to elect members and serve on the commissions were eliminated under the new law.

The suit seeks an injunction against the law and a declaration that it violates the Indiana Constitution’s prohibition against special legislation.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office has not yet responded to the suit.

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