Gov. Mitch Daniels has appointed Clay County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Robert Pell to replace Ernest Yelton as Clay Circuit Court Judge.
In a press release announcing the appointment of Pell locally and David Kolger as Wayne Circuit Court Judge, Daniels said, "David and Bob both have reputations as tough but fair prosecutors. Both have vast courtroom experience and are community leaders. David has faithfully served the citizens of Wayne County for many years as prosecutor, and is held in high regard by members of both the bar and bench. Bob has built a reputation as a diligent, level-headed prosecutor and a respected veteran of the Clay County courts on top of an impressive career as a private practitioner."
Yelton left the position vacant when he was appointed as the head of the Indiana Gaming Commission in January. He is one of several local officials chosen to work in state-level positions in recent months.
"I've handled many prosecutions during my years of courthouse experience, as well as criminal defense work and civil matters. Over the years, I've learned to work to resolve conflicting viewpoints effectively, which I think will serve me well on the bench," Pell said in an issued statement.
Pell, 50, resides in Brazil with his wife Jan Ella and has been working in Clay County for 15 years. He earned his undergraduate degree in forensic studies from Indiana University and his law degree from Indiana University School of Law at Indianapolis. From December of 1982 to January of 1988, he was the Chief Deputy Prosecutor, and later had a private law practice in Brazil and for one year in Terre Haute. From 1995 to December of 2002, he prosecuted child support and domestic violence cases, and became Chief Deputy Prosecutor in January of 2003. He was also Acting Clay County Prosecutor for one week following the resignation of David Thomas, who Gov. Daniels appointed as the state's first Inspector General.
Margaret Berry, Jim Deel and Rick Wyndham were also considered for the position, and Pell noted all the candidates were qualified. He met with the governor's counsel, Steven Schultz, and later with Daniels. Although he doesn't know specifically what set him apart from the other contenders or why Daniels chose him, Pell said he thinks it may have been his extensive experience in the prosecutor's office.
"I'm grateful that he did. I'll do my best. It will be very interesting sitting on that side of the bench," he told The Brazil Times. "It's something I've wanted for a long time. It's been an ambition of mine for some time."
State law requires that Pell run for the position of Clay Circuit Court Judge in the 2006 election, when both judge positions, as well as the sheriff and prosecutor, will also be open.
"It should be an interesting race. There should be a lot of community interest in that election," he said.
Although he does not have any specific goals for his new role, Pell said he will do his best to judge impartially and follow the law. With a number of recent changes in the county, it will be an interesting time to take over.
"I hope to be able to provide some continuity that will keep things operating smoothly," he said.
Replacing a judge of 25 years, Pell said he hopes to follow in the same vein as his predecessor. He praised the staff, whose members he has known for years, and noted the high level of organization in that office.
"I'm really looking forward to working with them and keeping the Circuit Court moving forward in the direction it's been going," he said. "He (Yelton) told me being the Circuit Court Judge is a big responsibility and I should keep that in mind. And that's what I intend to do."
While he doesn't feel any pressure or unattainable expectations from those who knew Yelton, he said the former judge was highly regarded as a fine judge.
"I'm hoping in time I can establish myself as that kind of judge. I hope to be reasonable and fair-minded and follow the law," he said.
As Circuit Court Judge, Pell will handle civil, juvenile and criminal cases as well as probate matters. He said he intends to judge each case on its own merits, and conduct business as efficiently as possible. As a former private practice attorney, he can relate to the challenges of attorneys who must handle their caseloads while running small businesses.
"I know what it's like to be in private practice," he said. "We have a pretty good bunch of lawyers here. Everything has run pretty smoothly, and I plan to keep it that way."
The lack of discord among county offices, which is relatively unusual, will also enable a smooth transition. Public officials and employees of the county work together rather than in opposition to each other.
"Maybe that's why the governor took so many of them from us, although I'm not complaining," he said, laughing. "All three candidates (appointed by Daniels) have established pretty good reputations for themselves."
Pell said methamphetamine will continue to be a challenge for the county. However, he will go on individual cases and try to achieve a fair result.
"It wasn't here 20 years ago and it's here now," he said. "It's difficult to determine if you're dealing with just an addictive person or someone who's more of a danger to the community."
Meanwhile, he said he thinks it will be interesting to see how the new jail affects the legal system of Clay County. Being forced by federal court order to release misdemeanor and nuisance prisoners in the past has been both uncomfortable and difficult.
"That's going to be really interesting to see. It will take some time to determine that," he said. "You had to make tough choices and determine on a gut level who's the least dangerous. Hopefully the new jail will alleviate that kind of problem."
Pell will be sworn in as Clay Circuit Judge at 9:30 a.m. on Monday at the Clay County Courthouse.
"Everyone I have worked with has helped me. The governor did his research," he said. "He came to the conclusion I was the best candidate, so I'll try to live up to that."