Members of the Marion County Judicial Selection Committee prepare to greet the next judge during the recent retention interviews in the Indiana Supreme Court’s conference room. (Photo/Marilyn Odendahl) 


By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

March 21, 2024

All eight Marion County Superior Court judges who will be appearing on the November ballot have received the endorsement of the Marion County Judicial Selection Committee in advance of the voters choosing to either retain or remove the jurists from the bench.

The judges sat for individual interviews before the committee on March 15. Committee members, which include Indiana Supreme Court Justice Loretta Rush and Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Indiana Robert Altice, Jr., peppered the judges with questions about their judicial temperament and philosophy, how they manage their caseloads, and the collegiality and cooperation within the Marion County courts.

After the interviews concluded, the committee met in executive session, then issued a press release announcing all eight judges were qualified and should be retained.

Those judges are:

Family Division

Stephen Creason, Marion Superior 16, appointed in March 2023 to succeed Judge Sheila Carlisle, who retired Dec. 31, 2022. Previously, he worked in the Indiana Attorney General’s Office and for the Indiana Supreme Court. Also, he served as a Marion County Circuit Court magistrate judge in 2022.

Criminal Division

Charnette Garner, Marion Superior 35, appointed in January 2019. Prior to her becoming a judge, she was an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern Indiana District and chief counsel for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office.

Danielle Gaughan, Marion Superior 17, served as a magistrate since tapped in 2002 before being tapped to succeed Judge Mark Jones, who resigned in January 2022. She had worked as an attorney and supervisor with the Marion County Public Defender Agency and in private practice.

Jennifer Harrison, Marion Superior 20, appointed in January 2019. Previously, she was in private practice at Lewis and Wilkins and had been a staff attorney at the Marion County Public Defender Agency.

Marie Kern, Marion Superior 28, selected in 2024 to succeed Judge Heather Welch, who retired in February 2024. Before joining the bench, Kern served as a magistrate judge in the Marion County Superior Court family division and spent three years in the Marion County Public Defender Agency.

Jeffrey Marchal, Marion Superior 31, appointed in 2022 to fill seat vacated when Judge Grant Hawkins retired on Sept. 30, 2022. Previously he worked in private practice and served as a magistrate judge.

Charles Miller, Marion Superior 29, tapped in 2023 to succeed Judge Stephen Eichholtz, who retired on Dec. 31, 2022. He had served as a deputy prosecutor in the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office and, in 2013, was appointed by Gov. Mike Pence as vice-chair of the Indiana Parole Board.

Cynthia Oetjen, Marion Superior 30, appointed in 2021 to succeed Judge Lisa Borges. She had worked as a deputy prosecuting attorney in the Marion County Prosecutor’s office and was executive director of the Child Advocacy Center.


Questions about temperament and courtroom demeanor

During the interview portion of the retention process, each judge was called individually into the Indiana Supreme Court’s conference room, seated at the end of a large table and then given 20 minutes to respond to the questions. Committee members – some with laptops and others with pens and paper note pads – crowded around the table and took turns interviewing the judges.

Rush, seated at the head of the table with Altice, asked several of the judges about their judicial temperament and referred to an article, “You Can Change Judging and Justice,” written by retired Colorado state court judge Thomas R. French for Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association. Each judge was given a copy of the article to read before the interviews were conducted.

Miller said since becoming a judge, he has had to learn to talk slower, make eye contact, address the parties by their names and make sure the defendants understand their constitutional rights. Also, to help his transition to the bench, he said he had organized a meeting with prosecutors and public defenders to get to know them and talk about his philosophy and expectations in the courtroom.

Kern said running a docket that people perceive as fair no matter the outcome is as important in criminal court as it was when she was presiding in family court. Allowing everyone to be heard, she said, will make all the parties feel better as they leave the courtroom, even if they do not prevail.

Harrison, who presides over major felony cases, said she loved the article, echoing the other judges about the importance of listening and giving all the parties a chance to tell their stories.

However, Harrison also talked about the difficulty of maintaining her outlook and not becoming cynical, after her ruling in one case sparked an intense public backlash. She told the committee she received a lot of support from the legal community, including advice from Marion County Superior Court Judge Mark Stoner, who said he does not second-guess himself after making a decision.

Recalling people who told her, “Don’t let this change who you are,” Harrison said she continues to look at the cases before her individually and assesses the danger to the community and the flight risk each defendant poses.

The judges were also asked about a retention survey from the Indianapolis Bar Association that provided anonymous feedback on their judicial style, courtroom conduct and case management.

When Gaughan was asked about her lower marks on the survey than the other judges, she pushed back, questioning how she could respond since the lawyers criticizing her were not identified. Also, she said while people could call her stupid, she would not let them say she did not work hard.

Gaughan said she considers herself the best case manager and she works to build a rapport with the people in her courtroom, just as she did when she was a public defender representing a client. Moreover, she said, she is focused on doing her job rather than what other people think, recalling a time during her tenure as a magistrate judge when she was handling juvenile cases and decided to take off her robe because the courtroom was unbearably hot. Some of other judges, she said, did not approve but she did not care what they thought because she had to do her job.

Conversely, Creason said he was shocked by his ranking on the Bar Association’s survey. He said he felt he had been struggling with managing his caseload and, when the survey gave him passing marks, he thought to himself, “Well, they haven’t caught on yet.”


Judges see improvements in collegiality

Committee members queried some judges with broader inquiries about the system and the processes. They asked how the merit selection and retention process could be improved, and about the operation and work culture of the Marion County Superior Court.

In fact, the committee members were so complimentary about Marchal’s work as a judge that they talked to him almost exclusively about his views on the Marion County court system.

Marchal talked at length about magistrate judges, describing them as the presiding judge’s “right hand,” and highlighted that, as the criminal division chair, he invites them to term meetings and seeks their input. The court could benefit, he said, by implementing consistent policies and procedures for hiring, firing and training of magistrate judges, and court bailiffs.

Also, Marchal said the court should be more aggressive about hiring magistrate judges. Rather than just posting a job notice online, he said, the court should recruit and make sure more attorneys, particularly those in the private sector, know about the opportunity.

Garner was also asked several questions about the court. She told the committee the camaraderie among the judges was the best it has ever been, which she attributed, partly, to all the judges and division being housed together at the new Marion County Community Justice Center.

The judges have “bought into the idea we need to come together and create change,” she said, complimenting her new colleagues, saying that “good people have joined us lately.” However, she said, the judges have to be intentional about being active in the legal community and getting to know the attorneys, since at the new justice center, they do not have the chance for quick conversations with the attorneys in the hallways or while getting lunch.

Oetjen noted she joined the bench when COVID-19 was still keeping people isolated and recalled working alone in her chambers with no one close by to answer her questions or provide advice. Since being able to return to in-person work, she said the judges want to be involved and work together which, she continued, they should do by speaking up and giving their input before the final decision is made.

Creason echoed the criminal division judges. He said in the family division, the judges are collegial, building relationships and working together with a willingness to compromise.

“This is a different era,” Creason said, “I am optimistic.”


Choosing judges through merit selection

Under Indiana law enacted in 2017, Marion County judges are appointed to the bench by a merit selection process.

Attorneys wanting to be a judge in Marion County do not run in an election, as lawyers in most other Indiana counties do. In Marion County, the interested individuals submit an application when a judgeship opens and they sit for an interview in front of the Marion County Judicial Selection Committee. After the interviews, the committee winnows the applicant pool down to three individuals and sends those candidates to the governor, who then picks one.

The judges must sit for retention at the end of their six-year term. For those who are appointed during the middle of a term, they have to file for retention in the same year that the previous judge’s term would have ended, which may not be a full six years.

At least nine of the 14 committee members must find a judge either qualified or unqualified in order for the entire committee to make a recommendation about retention to the Marion County voters. Judges who are found unqualified to be retained will still appear on the ballot.

In November, the voters will be asked to answer yes or no to the same question for each of the eight judges: “Shall Judge (name) be retained in office?” The ballot will not include any mention of the merit selection committee’s recommendations.

If Marion County voters choose to retain a judge, that individual will serve another six-year term. If the voters reject a judge, the bench in that courtroom will be vacated on Jan. 1 following the rejection and the selection committee will begin the process again to find a replacement.


Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

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