CROWN POINT | A veteran Northwest Indiana judge will serve as caretaker of the Lake juvenile justice complex, while the rest of the county's judiciary does battle for permanent control of that court.
The Indiana Supreme Court on Friday named Senior Judge Thomas W. Webber Sr. to serve as the temporary Juvenile Court judge after the current officeholder, Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura, steps down Sunday to become head of the Indiana Department of Child Services in Indianapolis.
Webber, 75, of Porter Township, will preside over a court with 30,000 cases of juvenile delinquency, investigations of child abuse and neglect, and litigation involving child paternity and financial support. Webber also will oversee a juvenile detention center in Crown Point that has a combined staff of 169 and an annual budget of $6 million.
Webber served 20 years as a Portage police officer and 13 years as a former Porter Superior judge. He still serves as a senior Indiana judge when other local judges cannot preside over a legal matter.
Bonaventura's departure has triggered a contest among the 16 judges of the Lake Superior Court for one of the state's most prominent judicial assignments. Bonaventura's administration was the subject of nationally aired documentaries when she allowed production companies to show the process in Lake Juvenile Court and the stories of individual juveniles.
The 15 other Superior Court judges announced last month they should be first in line to take over the Juvenile Court and picked Judge Nicholas Schiralli, who has served as a county division judge since 1976.
However, Bonaventura argues her replacement should be governed by Indiana's merit selection law, where any attorney in the county can apply for the job.
Under that process, a panel of five attorneys and four civilians called the Lake Judicial Nominating Commission reviews all applications and chooses three finalists, whose names are forwarded to Gov. Mike Pence. The governor then appoints the next judge.
A majority of the other Superior Court judges lined up against Bonaventura and for Schiralli.
Three Juvenile Court magistrates, who worked as assistants under Bonaventura for more than a decade, asked the high court Wednesday to block Schiralli. Schererville attorney R. Cordell Funk, a member of the Judicial Nominating Commission, filed their petition.
The magistrates argue their opportunity to become fully fledged judges would be harmed unless they can compete through the merit selection process.
The high court agreed Thursday to hear the dispute. The Indiana Attorney General also announced it may join the fray and argue in favor of the use of the merit selection law.