Partisan case for partisan judges: Who rules on lawsuit over Bloomington plan commission seat?

cropped ecusal Screen Shot 2020-06-21 at 11.39.01 AM
Art based on one of the recusals made by assigned judges in Guenther & Ellis v. Cockerham & Hamilton.

On June 9, a lawsuit was filed in Monroe County’s circuit court disputing the mayoral appointment of the plan commission seat where Chris Cockerham had sat the day before.

In the lawsuit, Andrew Guenther asserts that he has been duly appointed by GOP Monroe County chair William Ellis, and should serve on the commission instead of Cockerham.

It’s not yet decided which judge will hear the case. Owen County circuit judge Kelsey Hanlon, who’s facilitator of District 20, has been asked to appoint a special judge. One of 26 judicial districts the state, District 20 is made up of Monroe, Owen, Lawrence, and Greene counties.

What makes picking a judge a challenge for this case? Partisanship.

Circuit court judges in the state are chosen in partisan elections. And the lawsuit over the plan commission seat has an acutely partisan component.

The seat in dispute has to be filled by someone affiliated with the Republican Party, given the partisan balancing requirement in the statutory definition of plan commissions. Guenther and Ellis say that Bloomington’s mayor, Democrat John Hamilton, did not fill the vacancy in a timely way. And because of that, they argue, the appointment falls to the county chair of the Republican Party.

The case landed first in Democrat Catherine Stafford’s court. Stafford disqualified herself.

The case was then moved to Republican Judith Benckart’s court. Benckart also disqualified herself.

There’s no requirement that a reason for a disqualification be stated in a judge’s order. In the state of Indiana’s rules of judicial conduct the most general situation described for a required recusal is: “any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned…”

According to the order of disqualification issued by Benckart, Hanson is being asked to make the appointment of a special judge under a Monroe County local rule. (LR 53-AR00-0109)

The local rule on appointment of special judges says that preference is supposed to be given to local county judges. But given the partisan nature of the lawsuit, any Monroe County judge seems susceptible to questions about impartiality, based just on the fact that they answer to Monroe County voters in partisan elections.

Another recent high-profile case filed in the Monroe County circuit court wound up being heard by a special judge at the trial court level. When Bloomington filed a lawsuit against the governor over the annexation law passed by the state legislature enacted in 2017, Frances Hill recused herself as judge in the case.

For that case, the parties asked the court to appoint a special judge that they agreed on, Brown County magistrate Frank Nardi. Bloomington prevailed in that case, but it was heard on appeal by the state’s supreme court in January and the ruling has not yet been made.

It was not by pure chance that of the nine judges in the Monroe County circuit court, it was Stafford and Benckart, who were first assigned the case.

Cases are assigned randomly, but within some narrower parameters. Under local court rules, the clerk assigns miscellaneous civil cases—like the one filed over the plan commission seat—to the judges in Division 1, 4, 6, and 8.  Those four judges, in order, are Elizabeth Cure, Catherine Stafford, Holly Harvey, and Judith Benckart.

Based on a compiled table from Ballotpedia, Indiana is one of 11 other states that choose at least some of its lower trial court judges through partisan elections. The other 10 are: Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. Other states choose their lower trial court judges through methods that include non-partisan elections and nomination-confirmation processes.

2 thoughts on “Partisan case for partisan judges: Who rules on lawsuit over Bloomington plan commission seat?

    1. I think it’s more a case about the mayor being wrong than anything Andrew wants. I doubt the GOP would pay for a lawsuit if it were just because of what Andrew wants.

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