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Espar to remain on the ballot - for now

September 22, 2018

MICHIGAN CITY – The judge’s decision is in: Christina Espar will be listed on the ballot as the Republican candidate for La Porte County Prosecutor.

“I’m thrilled,” Espar said in a phone interview Friday. “This was the way that we thought the law should go, and that’s the way it went, and I’m incredibly pleased by the result.”

Not thrilled was La Porte County Democratic chairman James Kimmel, who filed the challenge against Espar’s candidacy.

“I’m not happy with it,” he said Friday night. “I guess what bothers me is that we have these laws on the books, but whether it be the Indiana Election Commission or the judiciary system, I guess they don’t feel we have to follow them.”

Just one day before the county was statutorily obligated to mail out absentee ballots, Judge Michael Bergerson ruled Friday that County Clerk Kathy Chroback may send ballots listing both Espar and John Lake, a Democrat, as candidates for prosecutor.

“To disfranchise (voters) because of a mere irregularity or a mistaken construction of the law by a party committee or election commissioner would defeat the very purpose of all election laws,” the judge wrote in his order.

In other words, Bergerson sided with Espar’s attorneys that her alleged failure to file her candidacy paperwork by the deadline was not enough to warrant allowing Lake to run unopposed at this stage in the election process.

However, the judge also approved Espar’s request that the case against her be moved from La Porte Superior Court 1 to a Marion County court, which still could decide her late filing makes her ineligible.

“It is the general rule that once a proper and timely motion for change of venue is filed, the trial court is divested of jurisdiction to take further action except to grant the change of venue,” Bergerson writes.

He clarified his decision to choose a Marion County court: “The Court also determines that, though venue is proper in La Porte County, it is highly likely that all of the remaining sitting judges in La Porte County would recuse themselves due to a perceived conflict. Therefore, this case shall be venued to another county…”

La Porte County Republican Party chairman Mitch Feikes was pleased with Friday’s outcome.

“I’m very happy with the decision,” he said. “Our side made compelling arguments and even Judge Burgeson agreed with the arguments. I believe a Marion County court will follow the law and leave her on the ballot.”

Espar’s candidacy was challenged this summer by Kimmel, who said he didn’t blame the candidates for breaking the law.

“I feel bad for the 10 candidates who had to go through this,” he said. “The nine who were removed, it’s not their fault they didn’t file on time.

“Mitch Feikes wants to blame the Democrats for this, like Trump is always blaming Democrats for everything. But what happened is Mitch Feikes screwed up (by not filing his notice of caucus on time). If not for that, I’m sure those nine candidates and Ms. Espar would have filed on time, so now we have to spend all this time and money on this.”

Mary Lake, Kimmel’s attorney and John Lake’s wife, argued Friday that Espar’s failure to file by the statutory deadline should disqualify her from running.

The Indiana Election Commission’s decision to certify Espar’s candidacy despite the apparent deadline violation, Mary Lake said, presents an emergency situation that could irreparably harm Kimmel, the county Dems, and the voters and general public in La Porte County.

She requested an injunction or restraining order that would have prevented the clerk from printing Espar’s name on the absentee ballots until after the Marion County court issues its opinion.

But Bergerson denied her request, writing: “The Court finds that no emergency exists that would warrant the issuance of either a Temporary Restraining Order or a Preliminary Injunction. Furthermore, the Court finds that the issuance of same would not be in the public interest.”

Should a judge downstate decide Espar’s candidacy is invalid prior to the Nov. 6 election, any votes Espar receives during absentee voting simply will not be counted.

However, Espar believes it’s unlikely the next judge will remove her from the ballot, and said proving abuse of discretion is an “incredibly hard” standard to meet.

“After hearing the standard of review today,” Espar said, ”… I’m confident they will rule to follow what the Indiana Election Commission decided.”

Kimmel said he will meet with Mary Lake in the near future to decide how to handle the matter going forward.

“Until then,” he said, “I still feel we have the best and most-qualified candidate in John Lake. We will hit the campaign trail to make sure the voters know.”

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