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The Journal Gazette

  • Churchward

  • Godfrey

  • Zent

Wednesday, August 29, 2018 1:00 am

Candidates to replace judge narrowed to 3

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

A Fort Wayne defense attorney and two magistrates are finalists to replace retiring Allen Superior Court Judge John Surbeck Jr.

Surbeck, who took the bench in 1988, announced in June he will retire at the end of the year. The county's Judicial Nominating Commission on Tuesday interviewed six applicants to replace him, choosing Anthony Churchward, Allen Circuit Court Magistrate Steven Godfrey and Allen Superior Court Magistrate David Zent as finalists.

Gov. Eric Holcomb will appoint one of them to serve out Surbeck's term, which expires in 2020. The panel will forward its picks to the governor, and Holcomb then has 60 days to make the appointment.

Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David chairs the seven-member nominating commission and said it typically notifies the governor within 10 days of its choices.

Churchward has been a public defender since 2000, and he and Godfrey – former chief counsel for the Allen County prosecutor's office – share a professional connection. Churchward was part of the defense team for Michael Plumadore, who was convicted in 2012 of abducting a 9-year-old girl, killing her with a brick and using a hacksaw to cut her body into pieces.

Godfrey, who spent 25 years as a prosecutor before being appointed a magistrate in April, handled the case for the prosecutor's office. He was visibly emotional when outlining grisly details of the case Tuesday after being asked by a commission member to recall what Godfrey considered a bad day in court.

Zent was appointed magistrate in 2015 and is assigned to the court's misdemeanor and traffic division. He also was a public defender.

Candidates each were interviewed for 30 minutes by commission members David, Holly Brady, Ben Eisbart, Angie Moellering, Paul Sturm, Mark Terrell and Douglas Ulmer. Applicants were asked their thoughts on alternative sentencing, approaches to sentencing and why each considered themselves the best candidate for the job.

“I thoroughly enjoy being on the bench,” Godfrey said during his interview. “It's a tremendous responsibility. It's very humbling to be on the bench.”

Attorney Michelle Kraus and Superior Court magistrates Samuel Keirns and Jason Custer also were interviewed. Huntington Circuit Court Judge Jamie Groves applied for the position but withdrew his application, David said.

“The commission had a very challenging task in choosing only three candidates from (a) fine list of applicants,” Churchward said in a text message after the list of finalists was released. “I am honored to be joining magistrates Godfrey and Zent in the next phase of this process.”

The commission will meet again soon to interview applicants to replace Superior Court Judge Stanley Levine, who also will retire at the end of the year. Interviews have not been scheduled.

Surbeck's replacement will be the first appointment of a local judge since Holcomb named Superior Court Judge Andrea Trevino to the position in March. She replaced Judge Dan Heath, who retired in February.

mleblanc@jg.net