Debate swells over Lake judicial selection

2013-09-24T18:30:00Z 2013-09-24T20:33:34Z Debate swells over Lake judicial selectionBy Bill Dolan, (219) 662-5328
September 24, 2013 6:30 pm  • 

CROWN POINT | A St. John lawyer is challenging how Lake County picks its judges just as Gov. Mike Pence contemplates who he will name as the newest member of the county's judiciary.

Joe Hero, a Republican who has taken on politicians of all stripes, now is confronting the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission, saying the nine-member body that has been screening judicial applicants for 40 years doesn't have enough female and Republican members.

"The whole commission isn't made up right," Hero said. "The law says there have to be two women lawyers, a black or Hispanic lawyer, and there isn't. There has to be two Republicans and two Democrats for the (non-lawyer) members, and there isn't." Hero called on Gov. Michael Pence and the Indiana Supreme Court to review the law's constitutionality and, if found to be invalid, restart the process of finding the county's next judge.  

Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker is defending the composition of the current judicial nominating commission, saying it meets the legal requirements, which have become confused by legislative and judicial changes.

This comes a month after the commission interviewed 11 applicants to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Lake Criminal Court and chose three finalists: Highland attorneys Sam Cappas and Timothy Ormes, and Lake Superior Court Magistrate Michael Pagano. Gov. Pence is to name the next judge from among the three by early October.

Most judges in Indiana are popularly elected, but Lake has selected judges through non-partisan appointments since 1973. 

The law, designed to shield its judiciary from political influences, permits the governor to name new Lake judges from among any its 1,600 resident attorneys who pass inspection from the judicial nominating commission.

The commission consists of one member of the Indiana Supreme Court, four lawyers elected only by the county's lawyers and four lay members appointed by the Lake County Board of Commissioners.

The state legislature introduced racial, gender and political affiliation quotas on judicial nomination commission members in 1995 to ensure a more diverse judiciary.

These required two commission lawyers and two lay members to be female, at least one lawyer and lay member to be minority and that no more than two lay members can belong to the same political party.

However, a federal judge struck down the quota in 1996 as improper, and the current judicial nominating commission consists of four white male attorneys. Three of the four lay members are Democrats.

Hero insists the the federal judge's ruling cannot be treated as permanent and the quotas, which still remain on the books, should be followed until the state legislature clarifies the situation.

Court: Legislature must act anew

Kathryn Dolan, public information officer for the state Supreme Court, said Justice Rucker commented Thursday that even attorneys versed in the law haven't always followed all the twists and turns of the commission's membership qualifications, but the quotas remain banned until the legislature acts again.

Tom Dabertin, a lay member and one of the longest-serving on the judicial nominating commission, said Hero's concern about the non-partisan nature of judicial selection is groundless.

"We don't care about politics at all," Dabertin said. "We are looking for the best candidates by studying their legal papers, detail reports of cases they've handled. We even get their personal finances."

Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen, D-Gary, said of Hero's complaint, "I don't know what his problem is, because the last two appointees to the court — Judge Calvin Hawkins and Judge Diane Boswell — are Republicans.

"Every time there is a Republican nominee among the bunch, the Republican governor always appoints the Republicans. He cannot say the process is unfair because you end up with Republican judges in a primarily Democratic county," Allen said.

However, Gov. Pence's upcoming appointment won't follow that trend. All three current judicial nominees have Democratic voting records.

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