Judge Stephen Sims’ retirement announcement last week didn’t exactly shock the local legal community – he had been discussing his plans for months.
Now, his departure will initiate a procedure not used in Allen County for more than a dozen years – selecting three finalists, one of whom Gov. Mike Pence will appoint to the bench.
For the first time since the Allen County Judicial Nomination Commission chose three finalists in 2000 to succeed Judge Paul Mathias, who was appointed to the state Court of Appeals, the commission will meet to again select three names to give to the governor. Two of them may well be local officials who have privately expressed interest in the position: Circuit Court Magistrate Craig Bobay and Michael McAlexander, chief deputy prosecutor. More applicants are expected.
By law, the chairman of the seven-member commission is Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson or his designee, and Dickson has named Justice Steven David to head the panel. Pence will appoint three non-attorney members; no more than two can be from the same party. Every four years, Allen County attorneys elect three attorneys as members of the commission. The current members are Ed Beck, Susan Rutz and James O’Connor. The seven members will review the applications and select three finalists based on criteria specified in the law.
Sims’ position is arguably the most work-intensive of the nine Superior Court judges. Unlike his eight colleagues, Sims works not in the Courthouse but the Allen County Juvenile Detention Center, which he ultimately oversees and where he hears Family Division cases, most involving juvenile delinquency. And, in some ways, Sims also oversees a school for juveniles held in the center.
Last year, Sims and Superior Court Judge Wendy Davis spoke about the possibility of Davis’ moving into Sims’ position, but she ultimately decided against it. Davis was elected to a criminal court slot in 2010 and decided to stay in that position. The law would have allowed her – or any other Superior Court judge – to transfer to the court’s Family Division. The commission then would have selected finalists for the open spot.
Superior Court judges were elected on a partisan basis until a 1971 reorganization that changed the selection process to appointment by the governor, with judges later facing retention votes. But the law changed again, to non-partisan elections, in 1982.
Despite the move to elections, it was common for judges to leave the bench mid-term to allow the governor to appoint their successor. Republican-leaning judges tended to retire when a Republican governor was in office; while judges leaning toward the Democratic Party left during the administrations of Govs. Evan Bayh and Frank O’Bannon.
The last judge to retire in mid-term was Vernon Sheldon in 1998, and O’Bannon appointed Stan Levine to replace him. Two years later, Judge Paul Mathias was appointed to the state Court of Appeals, and O’Bannon selected David Avery for the bench.