Amid accusations, Lake, St. Joseph judicial nominating bill passes Senate

The Indiana Senate passed a bill that reduced the number of local attorneys serving on the Lake and St. Joseph district nominations Monday, despite objections from Democratic senators. One of them alleged that the changes were triggered by anonymous complaints from candidates who had lost judges’ appointments.

“There were some nefarious things behind this bill. … That’s what all of this is about, “said Senator Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, one of several Senators who spoke out against House Bill 1453, which cleared Upper Chamber 34-13 on the third reading and will return home with one Modification.

Senate sponsor Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, railed over allegations by Democratic senators of “questioning my integrity a little” after about 90 minutes in the Senate Monday of laws passed by local and state bar associations and attorneys who testified were consistently rejected.

Niemeyer said he had “people who come to see me” concerned about the fairness of judicial nomination commissions, even though he refused to nominate them and no lawyers testified on the bill. “You know how hard it is for a Lake County attorney to question the system?”

While the lawyers who spoke publicly during the bill hearings were unanimously against the legislation, at the end of the debate, Niemeyer said, “I have the opposite, and that’s all I can tell you.”

But Taylor, the Senate minority leader, named several unsuccessful candidates for Lake County judges without making direct allegations, and urged Niemeyer if he knew them. “I told Senator Niemeyer that I didn’t want to do that,” said Taylor. The video of the Senate meeting on Monday will be published here.

Senator Linda Rogers, R-Granger also pointed to the recent litigation by a member of the St. Joseph Panel that resulted in the removal of two ineligible members. That, she said, “calls into question the integrity of the process.”

Even so, in February, the newly formed commission referred the same finalists for consideration by Governor Eric Holcomb.

House Law 1453 was changed last week and is being returned to the house for review as amended. The proposal would eliminate attorney input on who was selected to serve on the Lake and St. Joseph counties. Currently attorneys elect four out of nine lawyers on the Lake County panel and three out of seven in St. Joe.

The draft law, as amended, would set the number of members on each committee at seven. Three would be appointed by the governor and three by county commissioners in each county. The lawyer’s representation would be reduced to two members, and the draft laws would provide that one commissioner is a woman and one member is a minority. Each body is chaired by the Chief Justice or his agent. Each panel would submit five names of finalists to the governor to appoint a judge when a position becomes vacant.

The legislation would also lift current restrictions on the number of members of the same political party. This change prompted Senator Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, to observe politics being inserted into a system that had been designed to be apolitical.

Governor Eric Holcomb’s office has not responded to IL questions about whether Holcomb supports the bill. Senator Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, testified during the Senate session Monday that Holcomb told him “he has a big agenda” and “the composition of the Lake County Judicial Nomination Committee is not on his plate.”

Randolph tried unsuccessfully to convince the Senate to act as a jury, hear the evidence regarding the bill, and pass judgment on it. He said there was direct evidence that the current system worked well and produced good judges for 40 years, as well as unanimous opposition from the many attorneys who testified. The only evidence for the bill is indirect evidence from strangers.

“I am asking for a verdict on Lake County. I’m asking you to foil this bill because it’s not in Lake County’s best interests, ”said Randolph, a longtime attorney in the area.

Likewise, Senator Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, of the county practices beside the lake, but said that usually about half of her affairs were there. She said there was no need to tinker with a system that would produce good judges and be seen as a model for merit selection processes.

“It’s not broken. We don’t have to fix anything, ”said Tallian. “I don’t know who these people are who spoke to Sen. Niemeyer,” she said, but she noticed that a lot of people asked her, “Why are you doing this? … I have no answer.”

Taylor said he was also concerned that the amended legislation could restrict gender and minority representation on the boards. He asked Niemeyer why the amended bill provides for a woman and a minority member on each board, with one conspicuous language requiring “at least” one each on the Lake County commission.

“They are trying to read more of this legislation than there is,” replied Niemeyer, denying that the amended bill would limit diversity in the panels. He noted that the bill would for the first time place diversity requirements on the St. Joe Panel.

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