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Governor poised to gain more control over the appointment of Lake Superior Court judges
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2021 Indiana General Assembly

Governor poised to gain more control over the appointment of Lake Superior Court judges

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The Lake County Juvenile Center courtroom is shown. The Indiana General Assembly on Wednesday approved legislation changing the composition of the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission, which vets and recommends potential Lake Superior Court judges to the governor for his appointment.

The governor of Indiana not only will continue appointing Lake Superior Court judges, but the Republican-controlled General Assembly has agreed to give the governor more say in selecting the nominees eligible for appointment.

House Enrolled Act 1453 substitutes individuals picked by the governor for the commissioners chosen by the county’s lawyers and judges currently serving on the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission, which vets potential judges and recommends three candidates to the governor for his appointment when there is a vacancy at the Lake Superior Court.

If the measure is signed into law by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, the nine-member judicial nominating commission will shrink to seven, with three representatives chosen by the governor, three by the Lake County Commissioners, and the seventh member chosen by the chief justice of Indiana to break ties.

Following an outcry from lawyers both at home and in the Statehouse, the legislation was revised in the Senate to ensure the governor’s appointees include at least one attorney, one non-attorney, and one woman.

The commissioners’ appointees likewise must include one member of a racial minority group, along with an attorney and non-attorney, or a person meeting more than one criteria.

The sponsors of the measure, including state Reps. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron; Hal Slager, R-Schererville; and state Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell; cited no specific problems with the current composition of the Lake County Judicial Nominating Commission — only a desire to shake things up.

For example, Aylesworth, who is not an attorney and lives in Porter County, said he filed the legislation because he believes the current judicial nominating process is unfair.

He said changing it is "a great opportunity for more qualified candidates to fill the positions," in part by requiring the revised commission recommend five candidates to the governor for his appointment, instead of three.

State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said that’s not a good enough reason for the General Assembly to trash a thoughtful process that has worked effectively for decades in favor of one that is certain to inject partisan politics into the selection of Lake County judges.

“There was nothing that was broken and it didn’t need to be fixed in the first place,” Smith said. “(We) should just let this whole bill die: It is not necessary; it is not needed; it is not wanted.”

On the other hand, state Rep. Ragen Hatcher, D-Gary, said if judicial selection in Lake County is going to become a partisan exercise, then the General Assembly should allow Lake County residents to simply elect its superior court judges — just as the residents of 88 of 92 Indiana counties already do.

“Lake County, St. Joseph County, Marion County, Allen County — all of those counties that have that large minority populations — deserve to have the same the rights as the other 88,” Hatcher said. “Hopefully we’ll see a bill next session that will treat every county the same when selecting judges.”

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Angela Jones, president of the Lake County Bar Association, noted just 52 House members supported the measure on final passage, one more than the constitutional majority required to advance a proposal to the governor, and perhaps enough reason for the governor to veto it.

“The Lake County Bar Association continues to vehemently oppose House Bill 1453," Jones said. "We are hopeful that our governor will see this bill for what it truly is: a political power play and another example of why supermajorities (no matter what the political party) are dangerous."

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. has vowed, if Holcomb signs the proposal into law, to file a lawsuit challenging the measure as unconstitutional special legislation because it only affects the composition of the judicial nominating commissions in Lake and St. Joseph counties.

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