Local Republican Party leaders have chosen Brian Johnson, an attorney with Kolb Roellgen and Kirchoff, to fill an empty slot on the Nov. 3 ballot following the death of Superior Court II Judge Ryan Johanningsmeier in a plane crash just two weeks ago.
Seven local attorneys sought to take the empty Republican — and unopposed — ballot vacancy, and party officers over two days this week conducted interviews with all of them.
Johnson, according to county clerk and Republican Party vice-chairman David Shelton, simply stood out.
“We felt he was best-suited to carry on the legacy of Ryan Johanningsmeier,” Shelton said. “His participation with the Knox County Drug Court program has been phenomenal.
“Brian has also been a great public defender for several years, so much so that he is one of the few we have to constantly monitor his numbers because he is assigned so many cases,” Shelton, also a member of the county’s Public Defender Board, said. “All the judges respect him so much. So that’s a good indication and a good reflection on him.”
Republican Party officers also interviewed county attorney Andrew Porter, city attorney David Roellgen as well as Monica Gilmore, Johnson, Justin McGiffen, Tanner Bouchie and Andrew Kopatich.
Both Republicans and Democrats could file the state paperwork to seek the ballot slot, but the decision was ultimately up to local Republicans as Johanningsmeier was elected in 2014 as a Republican.
Shelton said he drafted 50 interview questions over four categories. The first candidate, he said, made it through 20, so it was those same 20 questions they asked everybody else in an effort to create a level playing field.
Johnson’s interview, he said, came last.
“We’re human,” Shelton said. “We all went in with our favorites.
“But Brian’s interview changed the minds of two of our officers.”
Shelton, too, said the panel’s primary focus was in finding someone to carry on with drug court in the spirit with which Johanningsmeier launched it years ago.
And Johnson has been involved in drug court since its conception, working alongside Johanningsmeier as a participant advocate.
“Carrying on the legacy of drug count is very important me,” Johnson said. “And I know it was important to the selection committee, too.
“I’ve invested a lot of my own time into drug court as a volunteer, so keeping it going will be one of my main priorities.”
And it only works, Johnson said, if there is a judge who, like Johanningsmeier, cares so much about the welfare and future of its participants.
“Drug court takes the traditional court model, which is very adversarial, and flips that on its head,” Johnson said. “It makes it more of an open-ended session where the defendant can’t hide behind, ‘Hey, I don’t want to talk about what happened.’ It involves the judge interacting a lot more with the defendant, and the reason it’s so successful here is because of the community involvement it receives, from law enforcement to churches to treatment providers.
“And that was done, single-handedly, by Judge Johanningsmeier.”
Johnson said he was elated to have been chosen, but he first acknowledged the “tragic circumstances” by which the process came about; his condolences, he said, go out to Johanningsmeier’s family and friends.
“This is never the way you imagine it going,” he said of accepting the ballot vacancy, “but it is what it is.
“I’m just super happy and humbled.”
Johnson, who has been with Kolb Roellgen and Kirchoff, the city’s oldest law firm, since he graduated from Valparaiso University’s law school ten years ago, said he also looks forward to keeping Superior Court II running smoothly and efficiently.
The court handles a variety of cases, mainly lower-level misdemeanors and felonies. The volume, however, is typically much greater than the other two county courts.
“So I think keeping court running efficiently is going to be one of my top priorities,” Johnson said.
Since Johanningsmeier was unopposed on the ballot, Johnson will be, too; the deadline for Democrats to have appointed a candidate passed on June 30.
So Johnson will certainly take the bench on Jan. 1 for a 6-year term, although his time may come sooner, Shelton said.
Members of the state Supreme Court last week issued an emergency order allowing Superior Court I Judge Gara Lee and Circuit Court Judge Sherry Gregg-Gilmore the power to designate temporary judges; they’ve had to use a variety of people, Shelton said.
Only Gov. Eric Holcomb can appoint someone to fill the unexpired term permanently, Shelton said.
So he delivered a letter to the governor on Thursday — one signed by all four Republican Party officers — asking that he “respectfully consider” their choice and go ahead and appoint Johnson to fill out the remainder of Johanningsmeier’s term.
An answer, however, isn’t expected for several weeks.
Johnson is a 2003 graduate of Lincoln High School, then he attended Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business.
He graduated from Valparaiso in 2010.
He has primarily worked in criminal law since but also does contractual litigation law and represents several local businesses.
He and his wife, Elizabeth (Keller) Johnson, recently welcomed their first son, Thomas.