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The wider issue


The Indiana Supreme Court has turned to one of Indiana’s most respected jurists – and a former colleague – to mediate a dispute.

Between judges.

In Lake County.

Frank Sullivan will have his work cut out for him.

At issue is an unusual dispute that pits three Lake County magistrates against the county’s Superior Court judges. The judges selected one of their own to transfer to a juvenile court vacancy. The magistrates, who want a shot at the juvenile court job, sued, contending the judges don’t get to make that decision. The magistrates say that under state law governing Lake County courts, the judge would have to apply to a nominating commission for the transfer. That commission would name three finalists, and the governor would select one of them.

The Supreme Court justices apparently would prefer not to wade into a political squabble in Lake County, well known for its political infighting and corruption.

The Supreme Court’s push for Lake County officials to resolve the matter themselves with the help of a mediator is understandable, and Sullivan – a former Supreme Court justice intimately familiar with both the state’s legal system and its politics – is a good choice for mediator.

But there is also reason to question that decision. The judge seeking the transfer had never gone through the nominating process previously, and Lake County law makes clear that such a judge “is not eligible to be reassigned, rotated, or transferred to the other divisions of the court.” But he “may apply to fill a vacancy in another division of the court through” the nominating commission and gubernatorial appointment process.

The question in Lake County is not how that law should be interpreted. Lake County’s chief judge has simply said the law is unconstitutional and refuses to follow it.

The entire issue demonstrates the inconsistency in laws governing courts in Indiana counties. State law has 92 sections for dealing with local courts, one for each county. In Allen County, for example, Superior Court Judge Dan Heath could transfer from the civil to the family division to replace Judge Stephen Sims without going through the nomination process, as he would have had to in Lake County.

Allen Superior Court judges are chosen in non-partisan elections. But candidates in some other counties run on party label, and still others are chosen by nomination commissions. And while some of the laws reflect different needs in different counties, others are blatant political power plays.

This inconsistency was noted in a 2010 report by the Indiana Judicial Conference. “At least seven different selection processes exist in the State of Indiana,” the report noted. “This creates a confusing landscape for the average citizen and outside observer.”

And, apparently in the case of Lake County, for the judges themselves.

The current dispute may seem like yet another case of Lake County politics, but it has repercussions for the system of justice statewide. At the very least, it should cause Hoosiers and lawmakers to seek consistency – and fairness – in how judges are selected.