Of Indiana’s 92 counties, four use merit-based voting instead of judicial elections to appoint superior judges. This selection process could soon change in two of these districts.
Bill by Rep. Michael Aylesworth, R-Hebron, would reorganize the composition of judicial nomination committees in Counties Lake and St. Joseph. Currently an even number of lawyers and non-lawyers are appointed by local interest groups. House Bill 1453 would give the governor a say on JNC members and completely remove the attorney’s involvement requirement.
Aylesworth presented HB 1453 as a simple reset of a system that had existed for decades. He read a letter from an anonymous lawyer in Lake County that spoke of political bias that prevented certain candidates from putting their names for judicial review.
But the response has been colder among attorneys willing to speak publicly about the bill.
“That way, anyone who is governor at this point will have a majority vote who will become a Lake County judge,” said Angela Jones, president of the Lake County Bar Association. “This is comparable to the appointments of the direct governor and takes the decision away from the local counties. That is not acceptable. “
HB 1453 would reduce the number of JNC members in each county to five – three appointed by the governor and two appointed by county officers. When a position in a higher court becomes vacant, the JNCs must provide the governor with the names of the five most qualified candidates, as opposed to the three names that the Lake County Commission is currently required to provide.
“The reorganization of the composition of each commission serves as a healthy reorientation of the judicial selection process so that personal biases and preferences do not hamper selection,” Aylesworth told lawmakers ahead of a final vote in the House of Representatives on February 8. Lines 63-31 vote.
Speaking to the Indiana attorney, Aylesworth said he heard from Lake County attorneys that the results of the judicial selection process prior to the trial were a foregone conclusion. Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, and Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville later joined the legislature, and Teshka said the bill was being pushed by local voters and lawyers who “reprisals” in support of the Legislation feared. Aylesworth supported the proposal, telling the Indiana attorney that he was asked to reveal the names of attorneys who had written letters for his legislation, but declined.
Aylesworth, a retired businessman whose wife Dolores is a licensed attorney in Hebron, told House members that lawyers for the JNCs may tend to nominate candidates they would most like to practice rather than the most qualified candidates. On this point, he explained to IL that judges are human beings and are affected by their backgrounds and experiences.
“It is just a huge challenge to have an absolutely 100% clean background with a case that you have to face in relation to any lawyer,” he said. “It is impossible.”
The overall goal of HB 1453, Aylesworth said, is to help ensure that more robust lists of candidates are sent to the governor without political consideration. Democratic lawmakers, however, accused him of openly partisan motives.
Rep. Ragen Hatcher and Vernon Smith, both of Gary, noted on the floor of the House that the four merit selection counties – Lake, St. Joseph, Allen, and Marion – have the largest Democratic population in the state to have. Along with South Bend Democratic MP Ryan Dvorak, they accused Aylesworth of trying to manipulate the system in favor of more Republican judges.
“Is it just a coincidence that these four counties are counties that are under democratic control?” Smith asked lawmakers ahead of the February 8 vote. “… I’m not judging, but it seems a little strange to me.”
However, Aylesworth said part of his motivation is to make younger lawyers, who are not as politically affiliated, feel like they have a fair chance of being considered for judicial posts.
Politics and diversity
The Indiana attorney approached members of the JNCs in Lake and St. Joseph counties and members of the Supreme Court benches in those counties. All of the respondents spoke out against HB 1453.
Jones, president of the Lake County Bar Association, testified against the bill on behalf of the Lake County Bar, the James C. Kimbrough Bar for African American Lawyers, and the Rudy Lozano Bar for Latino Lawyers. The St. Joseph County Bar Association passed a resolution against the bill proposing that the matter be referred to a summer study committee.
Similarly, the Supreme Court justices of Lake and St. Joseph have submitted letters to lawmakers requesting that judicial selection laws in their districts not be changed in the manner provided in HB 1453.
Most of the committee’s lawyers said they had not heard any complaints about the candidates they had sent to the governor. Only Brandy Darling, an assistant district attorney in Lake County, said she heard “rumblings” after new lawyers were elected to the commissions in 2019, but she dismissed those complaints as “sour grapes”. Current law provides that the legal practitioners in Lake and St. Joseph Counties elect the attorney members to be their JNCs.
The overriding concern of attorney members is that HB 1453 does not require the governor or county commissioners to appoint practicing attorneys to the commission. Chuck Leone, an attorney with the St. Joseph County Commission, said that attorney input was essential.
“I think attorneys are uniquely positioned to not only observe but collect other observations,” said Leone of Halpin Slagh in South Bend. “Each of the applicants signed a consent form that we could use to speak to judges and other lawyers about it, and we gathered as much information as possible. It’s a very robust process. “
In addition, the lawyers say, they practice in their local courts every day so that they know best what qualities judges need.
The other concern is diversity among both commissioners and candidates presented to the governor.
Under current law, at least two members of the Lake County JNC must be minority groups. In 2019, Darling said the Lake County’s corpse made history by electing two black women – herself and Shelice Tolbert – to the commission. Both Darling and Tolbert spoke of the importance of a commission that reflects the composition of the community.
David Gladish, another member of the Lake County commission, noted that the candidates the commission puts before the governor also vary. In the final round of judicial selection, the three finalists were judges – a white woman, a black man and a white man, each with different practical backgrounds and years of experience. Republican Governor Eric Holcomb eventually appointed Natalie Bokota to the Supreme Court’s bank.
When investigating Bokota and other candidates, Darling, Gladish and Tolbert said they never considered applicants’ political affiliations. In fact, Tolbert said she was unsure of applicants ‘political views and focused on applicants’ career history, professionalism, organization and courtesy.
Likewise, in St. Joseph County, Leone said he had never heard politics discussed in the judicial process.
Aylesworth originally proposed the bill with the assistance of Holcomb’s office, but later made it clear that it was the governor’s supporters, not the governor himself, who were calling for the legislation. Similarly, Holcomb’s office notified Indiana Lawyer twice that the governor did not request or know about HB 1453.
When asked if he would support HB 1453 if passed by law, a governor spokeswoman said only that Holcomb was “laser focused” on his agenda, which does not include judicial selection issues. Holcomb is overseeing other bills and will review the laws coming in on its desk, the spokeswoman said.
The bill has been criticized for giving the Indiana governor too much power over the judicial decision. Opponents noted that the director general would appoint a majority of the JNC members, including the chairman of the commission. However, Aylesworth noted that the local executive is already involved in logistical issues such as litigation in the judiciary. And at the federal level, it is the president who makes judicial nominations.
“We’re trying to make it more of a format like other courts are doing,” Aylesworth said of the US Supreme Court as an example. “The executive has more control over the appointment process.”
HB 1453 was referred to the Indiana Senate, but had not been assigned to a Senate committee at the IL date. It is likely that the legislation will be referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is also considering a resolution that would fundamentally change the selection of Indiana courts of appeal. The Senate Judiciary Committee had not assigned a hearing date to Joint Senate Resolution 16 as of the IL deadline. •