On Friday, January 12, 2024, Nwi.com reported that Philip Simon, United States District Court Judge in the Northern District of Indiana, found that the state-mandated process for appointing Superior Court judges in Lake County, Indiana appears to violate the federal Voting Rights Act. However, Judge Simon said he could not strike down the statute due to precedent set by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In his 23-page ruling, Judge Simon noted that under the Indiana system, 66% of Black citizens in the state are prevented from voting for Superior Court judges, while more than 80% of white citizens can elect these judges. This is because Indiana law requires Superior Court judges to be appointed by the governor in Lake, Marion, and St. Joseph counties, where two-thirds of Indiana’s Black population lives. In the other 89 counties across the state, which have overwhelmingly white populations, Superior Court judges are elected by voters.
Judge Simon argued that when considering Indiana’s entire voting system, it is clear there is a “huge disparity” in how white and Black citizens are treated regarding choosing judges. He urged the 7th Circuit to reevaluate its precedent in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling directing courts to look at a state’s whole voting process when reviewing potential Voting Rights Act violations.
The judge found that Indiana’s imposed procedure for appointing judges in Lake County denies citizens there the right to vote for Superior Court judges based on their race or color. This matched the claim in the lawsuit brought by Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., State Senator Lonnie Randolph, former East Chicago Judge Eduardo Fontanez, and others against the statute.
Mayor McDermott stated the plaintiffs plan to appeal, hoping to eventually ensure citizens in Indiana’s most populated counties have the same opportunity to elect Superior Court judges as other areas of the state. He argued equal treatment is important. The case could ultimately be appealed to the Supreme Court and may take over a year to resolve fully. However, the Indiana legislature could immediately fix the issue by approving Senator Randolph’s bill for Superior Court judges to be elected in Lake County.