Were you surprised when Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. announced at the last minute he was going to become the next Lake Juvenile Court judge? You're not alone.
Stefaniak said Wednesday when he went to work May 31, the final date for a sitting, merit-selected judge to claim seniority and transfer to the vacant Juvenile Court bench, his girlfriend didn't know he would make the announcement. From the sounds of it, Stefaniak himself wasn't even sure.
That morning, he called his father to get a reaction to the idea, and his father didn't raise any objections. That was Stefaniak's green light.
So minutes before the deadline, he claimed seniority and the Juvenile Court job vacated by Mary Beth Bonaventura.
Was he indecisive? That would perhaps offer a clue to his decisions on juvenile cases, which are vastly different from the adult criminal cases he now hears.
No, Stefaniak said, he kept it quiet so long because he didn't want people coming to him looking for favors in exchange for supporting him. This is, after all, Lake County we're talking about.
Any day now, he expects, the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission headed by Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker, a Gary native, will announce it is seeking applications from anyone interested in replacing Stefaniak on the Lake Criminal Court bench.
Meanwhile, Stefaniak is still handling criminal cases, just as he has for the past 12 years, while he is preparing for his transition to Juvenile Court.
It's going to be quite a change. He'll be trying to keep troubled juveniles from becoming adult criminals instead of dealing with the end product.
He'll also go from supervising six employees to a staff of 169 that includes several judicial assistants and a juvenile detention center.
Stefaniak has a lot to learn about how Juvenile Court works, but he's already working on it. He's even looking into ways to conduct an anonymous survey of employees to see what they like and don't like about their jobs and what suggestions they have for changes.
"It's amazing what you can find out if you just take the time to talk to the janitor and the cafeteria worker," Stefaniak said.
Already, Stefaniak is hearing suggestions.
"I've had lawyer after lawyer come up to me and say, 'We can't sit down'" while awaiting court hearings, he said. There are no chairs in the waiting areas. So Stefaniak is looking at benches that could be cleaned of graffiti easily and could be bolted in place. "Keep in mind people don't always leave court happy," he said. No one wants someone to imitate Bobby Knight and throw a chair across the court.
Bonaventura was Juvenile Court judge a long time. It will be interesting to see what additional surprises Stefaniak will bring as he puts his stamp on that operation.