RICH JAMES: Pick judges based on qualification, not seniority

2013-02-20T00:00:00Z RICH JAMES: Pick judges based on qualification, not seniorityRich James nwitimes.com
February 20, 2013 12:00 am  • 

That wonderful Lake Superior Court system the late Adam Benjamin created in the 1970s has a flaw. And it’s a big one. A gaping hole, if you will.

It kind of allows insider trading. It’s almost incestuous.

It happened last week when County Division Judge Nicholas Schiralli said he will replace Mary Beth Bonaventura as judge of the Lake Superior Court Juvenile Division.

Why? Because he can.

The law says the Lake County judge with the most time on the bench has the right to fill the vacancy.

Civil Division Judge Gerald Svetanoff, who has the most seniority, declined the job. Schiralli accepted it.

Schiralli was appointed a small claims court judge in 1976, overseeing minor civil and criminal matters. The name was changed to County Division a few years back.

I’m not terribly sure why Schiralli wants the Juvenile Court job. Maybe it’s for power and patronage.

As County Division judge, Schiralli had a budget of $756,000 and a staff of 23.

Schiralli, 64, will take over a staff of 169, a budget of $6 million and the juvenile detention center.

It is kind of like going from Little League to the Major League.

Since being appointed to the bench in 1976, Schiralli has been re-elected several times, largely because of his Gary political ties and the fact that he never faced a stiff challenge.

Under Benjamin’s court system, the county division judges initially ran in partisan elections, while the superior court judges stood for retention after being appointed. It was designed to minimize the impact of politics on the courts. The county division judges now stand for retention.

Time will tell if Schiralli works out in the Juvenile Court.

The Juvenile Court is like no other, largely because it deals with kids who have a host of problems for a variety of reasons. It takes a special kind of vision and compassion to deal with all that.

I do know there are people more qualified for the job than Schiralli. The five magistrates in the juvenile system clearly seem more prepared for the job. Unfortunately, they won’t be given a chance to submit their resumes.

The greatest strength of Benjamin’s judiciary is the bipartisan Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission that interviews candidates and sends three finalists to the governor, who appoints one.

It has brought diversity and many fine jurists to the bench.

Judges should have no greater privilege than anyone else. No one is entitled to a judgeship simply because they have been around longer than others.

It’s time to change Benjamin’s judicial blueprint so we always appoint judges based on qualifications, not longevity.

Adam would be the first to agree.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjames@219.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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