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Lawmaker proposing major changes to Lake County judicial selection process

Lawmaker proposing major changes to Lake County judicial selection process

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A Region lawmaker claimed Tuesday he's working to help Gov. Eric Holcomb take over the process used for decades to select superior court judges in Lake and St. Joseph counties.

State Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, told the House Judiciary Committee the state's Republican chief executive has charged Aylesworth with leading the effort to ensure Holcomb controls a majority of seats on each county's judicial nominating commission.

Rachel Hoffmeyer, a spokeswoman for the governor, later insisted "the governor’s office did not request this legislation."

Aylesworth did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking clarification on why he claimed to be doing the governor's bidding.

Nevertheless, Aylesworth's House Bill 1453 would reestablish the nominating commissions as six-member bodies, with three voting members appointed by the governor, two voting members appointed by the county commissioners, and a member of the Indiana Supreme Court as the nonvoting chairman.

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The legislation would eliminate the commission members currently selected by Lake County attorneys, as well as existing statutory requirements that commission members reflect the diversity of Lake County's population.

Aylesworth said the governor believes recent judicial candidates recommended to him by the commission to fill vacancies on the Lake Superior Court lacked the experience and qualifications Holcomb would like to see in his judicial appointments.

"It is a very partisan and very prejudiced selection process," Aylesworth said. "This is something that needs to be updated."

At the same time, Aylesworth acknowledged allowing the governor to select three of the five voting members on the commission will all but ensure the judicial candidates recommended to the governor only will be of the same political party as the governor — increasing the partisanship of the selection process.

Munster attorney Angela Jones, president of the Lake County Bar Association, strongly objected to Aylesworth's proposal.

She pointed out the eight most recently appointed judges in Lake County have been equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Jones said that's how the process is supposed to work, by finding the most qualified individuals regardless of partisanship, and local attorneys have unique knowledge in that regard which must not be ignored.

"We have a knowledgeable and diverse bench because of the makeup of the Judicial Nominating Commission," Jones said. "Our current system works."

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter agreed the county's judicial selection process needs no changes.

He also said it's insulting Aylesworth would claim the three judicial candidates most recently recommended to the governor were of insufficient quality.

"He is absolutely wrong. He don't know his facts. He should not be commenting on Lake County's judicial process," Carter said. "He is intentionally misstating the facts."

The Republican-controlled panel ultimately voted 6-4 along party lines to advance Aylesworth's restructuring plan to the full House.

Lake and St. Joseph counties are among just four in the state where merit selection by the governor, followed by voter ratification of the governor's pick two years later, is the selection process for superior court judges.

Judges in the state's 88 other counties all reach the bench through partisan elections.

Meet the 2021 Northwest Indiana legislative delegation


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