FORT WAYNE – Among the eight candidates were a long-distance runner, a hockey mom, a published author and a long-time prosecutor.
But after hours of interviews and a few private meetings, the Allen County Judicial Nominating Commission, which is itself an eclectic group, picked three individuals as potential candidates for the vacant position of civil division judge on the Allen Superior Court bench.
Those three people – two magistrates and a local attorney in private practice – now await the decision by Gov. Mike Pence to determine who will replace Allen Superior Court Judge Dan Heath.
Heath moved to the Allen County Juvenile Justice Center to take over for Allen Superior Court Judge Stephen Sims, who retired Friday. Allen Superior Court rules allows a judge within the court to slide into another open spot on the bench. When Sims announced his retirement, Heath announced his intention to try his hand in the Superior Court’s Family Relations Division.
The three candidates awaiting the governor’s decision are Allen Circuit Court Magistrate Craig Bobay, Allen Superior Court Magistrate Jennifer DeGroote and Michael Michmerhuizen.
More than a decade passed between Bobay’s 1980 graduation from what was Indiana University-Fort Wayne and his graduation from Indiana University-Bloomington’s law school.
During that time, he worked at Allen County’s Wood Youth Center, now the Allen County Juvenile Justice Center, as a youth care worker and later as a juvenile probation officer.
I got to meet a lot of people, Bobay, 56, told the commission Thursday in his interviews. Usually not at their best.
That job and a subsequent job as the court administrator in Allen Superior Court led to the decision to go to law school.
I really enjoyed my participation with the justice system, he said.
Already married, with two young children and a house in Fort Wayne, Bobay lived in Bloomington during the week, which allowed him to focus solely on his studies.
After clerking for U.S. District Judge William Lee, he worked for Hunt, Suedhoff & Kalamaros, handling civil rights, insurance and personal injury defense law, according to his résumé.
In 1997, Bobay became a magistrate in the Allen County courts.
He told the commission he moved from the family court division of Superior Court to serve as the magistrate in Circuit Court because of its varied docket. He and Circuit Court Judge Tom Felts often trade dockets, giving him the opportunity to handle cases as varied as criminal and family court.
I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed, he said. I have experience in all areas of the law.
Bobay told the commission he sees his role as a magistrate as one of an encourager, to help people use their strengths to overcome their weaknesses.
When asked where he turns for wisdom, Bobay was quick to say first the law, then his faith.
When I see people in a difficult situation, I take a breath, and say a prayer, for them and for myself, that I’ll have wisdom, Bobay said.
Bobay is married with three now-adult children.
He has volunteered helping rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and currently is on the board of the Fort Wayne Track Club.
You have to pursue the things you love, Bobay said.
In an interview after his name was announced as a finalist, Bobay said he was humbled and honored to be in the final three.
I’m very pleased to be thought of as being worthy to be considered, he said.
Since 1999, DeGroote has been handling one of the busiest dockets in Allen County, in the Superior Court Civil Division’s small claims.
It is a job she enjoys, and her decision to throw her hat in the ring for the Superior Court seat is a natural progression of the desire to continue to serve the community, she said.
A Michigan native, DeGroote, 43, graduated from Valparaiso University’s law school in 1995, after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1991.
She moved to Fort Wayne in 1997 to work for Barrett & McNagny after a couple of years practicing law in Indianapolis, she said in a telephone interview.
DeGroote told the commission her professional strengths included her ability to communicate – in writing and to articulate her orders and the court’s decisions from the bench.
When asked by the commission whether there were any changes she would make to the Superior Court if she was selected for the position, DeGroote said she does not think she would need to bring in any changes.
We have a really strong bench, she said.
The role of a judge, she said, is to be a steward of the courts, a steward of justice.
Her experience as a magistrate showed she already has the judicial temperament needed to be a good judge – impartiality, compassion and tact.
You have to be open-minded and then make a decision, she said.
DeGroote said she considers herself honored to have the position she currently has and hopes she will be extended the opportunity to serve the residents of Allen County as a judge within the division.
She was thrilled to make the cut to the final three.
It was a great panel of eight applicants, and I feel honored to be included in the final three, DeGroote said.
She is married with two active boys – currently occupying much of her free time with their hockey games and wrestling.
Her husband is a partner at the law firm of Hunt, Suedhoff & Kalamaros.
Forty years old, also a native of Michigan, Michmerhuizen told the commission he enjoys the law and is not bored with it or his current work as a partner at Barrett & McNagny.
The business of law firms, however, is not something he finds as interesting, he said in his interviews.
I enjoy the practice (of law) more, he said.
When asked what his footprint as a judge would be, Michmerhuizen said no one in the Superior Court’s civil division is looking to make new law.
Instead, he said, they try to issue decisions consistent with existing laws.
If people come to my court, they would know I will apply the law as written, he said.
Michmerhuizen cited his father – a schoolteacher – as one of his greatest influences.
One of the longtime attorneys on the commission asked Michmerhuizen what roles humility and civility played in serving as a judge.
Humility can have a place, Michmerhuizen said, but it is important that a judge not bend over backward too much.
The role of judges, he said, is to decide impartially, even when the attorneys rub them the wrong way.
In a telephone interview Friday, Michmerhuizen was also honored to be included in the top three finalists.
It was a great group of candidates, he said.
Michmerhuizen is married with three children.
Like DeGroote, he is a University of Michigan graduate, having graduated from law school there in 1999. He received his undergraduate degree from Grand Valley State University in 1995.
He said he enjoyed the process of applying for the position – seeing how it worked procedurally.
Michmerhuizen knew many of the candidates, some well.
It was a good pool, he said.
He said he has tried cases in front of both Bobay and DeGroote.
They’re both good judges, and I’m happy to be included with them.