Lake Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura is asking the Indiana Supreme Court to issue an order requiring her replacement be chosen through merit selection rather than seniority, according to letters obtained Friday by The Times.
Bonaventura is leaving the bench to become director of the Indiana Department of Child Services.
Last month a Lake Superior Court memo indicated Judge Nicholas Schiralli would take over the juvenile division based on seniority. Judge Gerald Svetanoff, the longest-serving judge in Superior Court, had first choice but declined the job. Schiralli, who was next in line, accepted it.
In her letter to the Supreme Court, Bonaventura asked the justices to intervene and require her job be filled by merit selection instead. Through merit selection, a Judicial Nominating Commission would interview applicants and choose three finalists to present to the governor, who would have final choice.
Bonaventura argues Schiralli's move to juvenile court would violate an Indiana law that states a judge who has not been appointed through merit selection is ineligible to transfer, according to her letter dated Feb. 25.
She also said any lateral transfer would be invalid because the Lake County-based rule that allows that expired more than a decade ago. In a subsequent letter dated March 4, Bonaventura said the rule also only references the criminal and civil divisions — not the juvenile division.
Bonaventura also pointed out an Indiana law that says the transfer of judges is only allowed in the event of an emergency or when it is "necessary for the efficient operation of the court."
"I believe that the merit selection process is not only the statutorily appropriate method, but the only method that will ensure efficient, effective and judicially sound operation of the juvenile court for the benefit of Lake County's children," she wrote in her Feb. 25 letter to the Supreme Court.
The Lake Juvenile Court judge manages a $6 million budget and staff of 169 that includes several judicial assistants and a juvenile detention center. The court handles about 30,000 cases of juvenile delinquency, investigations of child abuse and neglect and litigation involving child paternity and financial support.
Bonaventura said Lake County judges voted Feb. 12 to allow her position be filled through "self-selection and seniority" rather than merit selection, according to her letter.
If Schiralli takes over Juvenile Court, it will be the first time in Lake County history that a judicial vacancy was not filled by a judge who was merit-selected for that particular subject matter, according to Bonaventura's letter. Two Lake County judges previously transferred to courts handling the same subject.
When reached late Friday by phone, Bonaventura said her letters question the process, not the abilities of the person who would fill her position. She said she will comply with the Supreme Court's decision on her request and will ensure there is a smooth transition before she leaves.
Indiana Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathryn Dolan could not be reached late Friday for comment on Bonaventura's letter.
Judge Schiralli also could not be reached late Friday.