Vincennes attorney to succeed judge killed in plane crash

Attorney Brian M. Johnson was appointed the new judge of Knox Superior Court on Monday by Gov. Eric Holcomb, just days after the Knox County Republican Party selected him to be the party’s unopposed candidate on the November ballot.

Johnson replaces Knox Superior Judge Ryan Johanningsmeier, who was killed in a small-plane crash Aug. 29.

Johnson, a 2010 graduate of Valparaiso Law School, is a partner at Kolb Roellgen Johnson & Traylor in Vincennes. He has served as a public defender in Knox County and as judge pro tem for the local courts. In private practice, he has experience in a variety of areas including criminal law, real estate, personal injury, evictions and estate planning.

A native of Knox County, Johnson was one of seven candidates interviewed by Republican Party officers, according to David Shelton, Knox County Republican Party vice chair and Knox County clerk. Johnson’s work in the Knox Superior Drug Court program, counseling and working with the participants for the past four years enabled the attorney to stand out from the others.

Johnanningsmeier started the local drug court program, which currently has 50 participants. Shelton said maintaining the program was “high priority” not only to continue helping the individuals – which, in turn, benefits the families and the community — but also to honor the legacy of the late judge.

Superior Court staff who worked with the drug court program along with the participants told the Republican Party officials they supported Johnson’s candidacy, Shelton said.

“I think we’re glad to have made the choice we did,” Shelton said. “I think (Johnson) is the best candidate to honor Judge Johanningsmeier’s legacy and his memory.”

Thursday, Shelton traveled to Indianapolis to file the necessary paperwork with the Indiana Election Commission to get Johnson’s name substituted on the ballot. Also, he delivered a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb “humbling suggesting” Johnson be appointed to the Superior Court now to serve the remainder of Johanningsmeier’s term.

Shelton said allowing Johnson to join the bench before the end of the year would bring some consistency and continuity to a court that handles more than 5,000 cases annually.

“Brian Johnson will be busy,” Shelton said. “But he knows what he’s getting into. He’s practiced extensively in that court.”

In an order issued Sept. 1, the Indiana Supreme Court granted Knox Circuit Judge Sherry Gregg Gilmore and Knox Superior Judge Gara Lee the ability to fill the Superior Court vacancy until the governor makes an appointment. Gilmore and Lee can appoint senior judges and local judges pro tempore.

The four Republican Party officials met for more than 10 hours to interview and select a candidate for the Superior Court vacancy, according to Shelton. Each candidate was asked the same 20 questions and a few follow-up questions in interviews that lasted about an hour.

All of the interviews and deliberations were done in-person Sept. 8 and 9 in a large conference room at Pioneer Oil and Propane in Vincennes.

To select their candidate, the local party officials copied the process the state Republican Party used to pick the candidate for Indiana Attorney General, Shelton said. The party officials would write their top three choices in order of their preference, then the candidates with the least votes were dropped off the balloting until one person remained.

“We were very fortunate as a Republican Party to have such a deep pool of quality and qualified candidates,” Shelton said.

Johanningsmeier was killed Aug. 29 when his small plane crashed in southeastern Illinois. He was flying a single-engine Cirrus SR22. According to WTHI-TV, Johanningsmeier had fueled up at the Sullivan County Airport and was headed to the airport in Lawrence County, Illinois, just over the state line. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash.

Johanningsmeier had been the judge of Knox Superior 2 since 2015 and was remembered as a problem-solver who helped defendants start new lives.

“His tragic death leaves his staff and loved ones in mourning and we join them,” Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush said in statement. “As a problem-solving court judge he helped provide defendants with a new path in life allowing those most in need of restorative justice to work for a better tomorrow.”

Johanningsmeier campaigned for the bench on the promise of opening a problem-solving court to serve people in Knox County who were struggling with addiction. Many locals did not believe such a small rural community could muster the resources necessary but, according to Joseph Williams, coordinator for the Knox County Drug Court, Johanningsmeier was undeterred.

“He had the vision to build what was impossible and now it is essential,” Williams said of the drug court. “I expect the program to continue and continue in the mode of continual improvement.”

The drug court began in 2016 with 10 participants. It now has 50 active participants and has served more than 100 people. Williams pointed out that the impact of the program ripples beyond the graduates to their children, their families and into the wider community.

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