Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak's announcement Friday he will become the new Lake Juvenile Court judge puts a person in that position who has previously gone through the merit selection process.
Stefaniak's announcement ends months of controversy surrounding the replacement of Mary Beth Bonaventura, who left in March to become director of the Indiana Department of Child Services. But the issue is larger than this one court.
The controversy began when Lake Superior Court Judge Nicholas Schiralli decided to switch to Lake Juvenile Court, with the support of his fellow judges. But Schiralli was elected to his position before the law changed to require merit selection for all superior court judges.
Merit selection puts judicial candidates in Lake and St. Joseph counties through a rigorous process similar to that used for the Indiana Supreme Court. A nominating commission gathers detailed applications, interviews the candidates, then recommends the top three for the governor to choose from.
Indiana doesn't require that process for judges throughout the state, but it should. Running for office means declaring a political party affiliation, and it can mean accepting donations to pay for campaign expenses. That can lead to questions about a judge's impartiality when those donors are involved in legal matters or when a lawsuit involved political considerations.
Merit selection is also more like a private sector hiring process in that it selects the right job candidate for a particular vacancy. At least, that's the way it should be.
But what if a judge selected for one court wants to transfer to another? Courts can be very different. The Lake Juvenile Court judge, for example, not only provides more than 30,000 cases a year but also oversees a staff of 169 that includes several assistants and the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center.
Lake County's legislative agenda next year should include clarifying state law to require the merit selection process be used each time there is a judicial vacancy.
It's not just about vetting judges, but about selecting the right person for each court.