INDIANAPOLIS — Lake Superior Judge Elizabeth Tavitas is taking her legal skills to the next level.
On Thursday, Gov. Eric Holcomb appointed the Gary-based jurist to the Indiana Court of Appeals to replace Judge Michael Barnes, who last month retired from the 15-judge appellate court after 18 years on the bench.
"It's a dream come true for me," Tavitas said. "I'm so excited to bring my experience over my 28-year legal career as a public servant to the Court of Appeals, and I'm excited just to dig in and start doing the hard work."
Tavitas, 56, is a South Bend native and University of Notre Dame graduate who worked in Lake County as a deputy prosecutor, in the public defender's office and in private practice before becoming a referee at Lake County's juvenile court in 1998, where she oversaw more than 1,200 termination of parental rights cases.
Republican former Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2006 appointed Tavitas as Lake Superior Court judge.
The Munster resident primarily has presided over domestic relations cases, including divorce, child custody, child support, visitation and domestic violence protection orders.
Tavitas said she will miss being a trial court judge and being in the courtroom, as well as the people of Lake County and her staff.
"But I'm looking forward to this new type of experience where I will be able to collaborate more with 14 other Court of Appeals judges, so I won't be as isolated as I am as a trial court judge," she said.
Tavitas also is eager to contribute "to the improvement of the law" at a statewide level, in particular ensuring equal access to justice for low-income litigants and protecting the interests of children in the court system through the guardian ad litem program.
"I certainly cannot replace Judge Barnes, he's a giant on the court as we all know, but I hope to continue his legacy of being a great public servant for the state of Indiana," Tavitas said.
Tavitas was recommended for the Court of Appeals vacancy in May by the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission, along with St. Joseph Superior Judge Steven Hostetler and Fort Wayne attorney David Van Gilder.
The Republican governor said Tavitas stood out for her intellect and commitment to judicial restraint, her focus on access to the courts and her extensive experience dealing with families in crisis.
"As we are all aware, many Hoosier families are suffering and struggling, especially the least among us," Holcomb said. "More and more of these families end up in our legal system."
"Judge Tavitas is well known for her quiet strength, resolve and willingness to roll up her sleeves and create workable solutions with the resources she has. It is my great honor to appoint her to our state's second highest court."
Tavitas said the governor called Wednesday to offer her the position while she was on the bench in her courtroom.
"I usually do not take (my phone) into the courtroom. But I saw his name light up on my cellphone and I had to take a recess," she said.
"Then I had to go back into court. So it didn't really sink in until I left the courthouse last night."
Tavitas told the nominating commission that she sees the law "in a human way" as she believes the law is intended "to help people who have been wronged."
"The rule of law is meant to give guidance to citizens, to lawyers, to judges," she said. "If we don't have respect for the law, citizens don't know how to conduct their lives in such a way that they can avoid civil litigation or criminal prosecution."
The Court of Appeals is led by Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik of Porter County. Its three-judge panels annually rule on more than 2,000 appeals of trial court decisions from all 92 Indiana counties, typically in less than two months.
Tavitas' start date on the Court of Appeals has not been set.
She initially will serve a two-year term, and then Hoosier voters will decide in 2020 whether to retain Tavitas for a renewable 10-year term.
Holcomb also eventually will appoint Tavitas' replacement on the Lake Superior Court.