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Push to change appointment of superior court judges in St. Joseph County

Published: Feb. 3, 2021 at 5:48 PM EST
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ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. (WNDU) - St. Joseph County is one of only four in the State of Indiana where superior court judges are appointed instead of elected.

Now the appointment process itself has been targeted for an overhaul.

“It’s a blatant political power grab,” said Ind. Rep. Ryan Dvorak, (D) South Bend. “And it’s one that’s also being done complete without even talking to the judges and lawyers of our community. They were completely caught off guard by it.”

Turns out, lawyers inspired Ind. Rep. Jake Teschka to sign on as a co-author of HB 1453. “The bar association’s significant impact on the way that we pick judges now is really one of the reasons why I got involved. And it comes down to a simple phrase that I’ve been saying all over the statehouse here, we don’t let players pick the refs.”

Rep. Teshka told 16 News Now, “I think that when choosing our judges they need to be able to be independent and so allowing folks who may have motivations of not who is going to serve best in this role, but who would I rather, who would I rather try cases against, I think that can be problematic.”

Right now, candidates for superior court judge in St. Joseph County are screened by a seven-member judicial nominating commission. The commission is made up of three practicing attorneys who are elected by their fellow lawyers. There are also three non-attorneys appointed by the mayor of South Bend, the mayor of Mishawaka, and the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners. A Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court also serves as a non-voting member.

HB 1453 would switch to a six-member commission with three members appointed by the governor and two by the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners. There would also be a non-voting member from the Indiana Supreme Court.

Under both systems, the governor has the final say—he picks a winner from a list of five eligible nominees.

“I think the new system is better because it takes the bar association out of the equation,” said Rep. Teshka. “Ultimately the governor makes these picks anyway. It just makes sense that he would have a stronger say on who sits on the commission and who is sending that list of names down to him to make the final choice.”

Rep. Dvorak feels the new method would violate the separation of powers. “So basically, what it translates to is the governor will be able to select his own political appointees as a patronage job for judge in St. Joseph County.”

The bill would also apply to Lake County’s Judicial Nominating Commission.

The measure passed out of the House Judiciary Committee this week and now heads to the floor for further action.

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