CROWN POINT | Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak said Friday afternoon he will be the new Lake Juvenile Court judge.
"I'm looking forward to working with the kids and the new challenges," Stefaniak said, adding that his first plan of action is to re-establish a juvenile court presence in Gary.
Former Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura moved most court facilities to Crown Point 11 years ago and pulled the last of her staff out of Gary in February.
Stefaniak takes over a court with a $6 million budget and a staff of 169 that includes several judicial assistants and a juvenile detention center.
The court presides over 30,000 cases of juvenile delinquency, investigations of child abuse and neglect and litigation involving child paternity and financial support.
Stefaniak's announcement ends months of uncertainty and controversy over who would fill the position vacated by Bonaventura, who left in March to become director of the Indiana Department of Child Services.
Her departure ignited a legal tussle between Lake Superior Court judges and Juvenile Court magistrates. The judges supported Lake Superior Court Judge Nicholas Schiralli's transfer into Juvenile Court, while the magistrates wanted Bonaventura's position filled through the merit selection process.
Through merit selection, a Judicial Nominating Commission interviews applicants and chooses three finalists to present to the governor, who has final choice.
The Indiana Supreme Court ended the conflict between judges and magistrates in May by barring Schiralli's transfer because he had not gone through merit selection. State law prohibits judges in Lake County from transferring unless they have been merit-selected.
The Supreme Court said another judge, one who has been through merit selection, could transfer into the Juvenile Court vacancy.
Stefaniak became Lake Criminal Court judge in 2001 through merit selection. He has presided over 250 trials and pronounced four life sentences and one death sentence among a total of 2,000 felony cases.
Before that, he worked as a deputy county prosecutor from 1990 until his election as Hammond City Court judge in 1995. He was born and reared in Calumet City, graduated from St. Joseph College in 1987 and the Valparaiso Law School in 1990.
His transfer to Juvenile Court likely will create a vacancy in Lake Criminal Court. Other Superior Court judges have a week to declare their interest in transferring into Criminal Court Room Four, where Stefaniak presided, although it is widely expected none will. If so, the merit selection commission, a bipartisan group of lawyers and lay people, will fill it.
Senior Judge Thomas Webber Sr. has been serving as temporary Juvenile Court judge since Bonaventura's departure.
Senior Lake Superior Court Judge John Pera hailed the new juvenile court judge, predicting Stefaniak will do a fine job because he "already has had an outstanding career and established himself quickly as having a great legal mind," Pera said.