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New judge sworn in, another moves on in Lake County

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Updated: December 20, 2013 9:04PM

Lake Superior Court-Criminal Division Room 4 was packed with well-wishers as the new judge, Samuel L. Cappas, took the oath of office Friday.

Judge Sheila Moss administered the oath to Cappas, a former deputy prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, and then held his judicial robe as he slipped it on while family, friends, fellow judges, court staff and others watched and applauded.

“It finally happened,” Cappas said. “As many opening statements and closing arguments as I’ve given, I’m almost speechless. Almost.”

Cappas started working in the courts at the Lake County government center in 1984. “I hope to treat everyone fairly and judiciously,” he said as he scanned the crowd of familiar faces. Cappas said he wanted to thank Gov. Mike Pence “for having selected me and for giving me this opportunity to serve the public in this manner.”

Pence appointed Cappas in October to fill the vacancy created by the transfer of Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr., from the criminal division to the juvenile division. The previous juvenile judge, Mary Beth Bonaventura, was named director of the Indiana Department of Child Services.

On Friday, Stefaniak spent his last morning in the criminal division handling routine cases — sentencing hearings, plea agreements and setting omnibus and trial dates. In roughly 12 years on the bench in Crown Point, Stefaniak presided over 242 jury trials and tried about 30 people as a deputy prosecutor. He presided over portions of three death penalty cases, including one that concluded this year, and three cases in which the defendant faced life in prison without parole.

“I think to do this job, you’ve got to have the ability to think on your feet,” Stefaniak said. “You’ve got to have common sense and vast life experience because you deal with all sorts of people. You also have to have the ability to make a decision because an indecisive judge in a criminal court will get eaten alive.”

The job has been both rewarding and disheartening, Stefaniak said. “It’s rewarding if you’re a goal-oriented person. You have goals every week with new trials. If you don’t take control of your docket, your docket will take control of you. I always encourage the parties to try to get the case resolved in a fair manner.

“It’s disheartening in that you see people at their worst,” he said. “You see the dark side of life and it can change your perception if you let it. You affect people’s lives — good, bad of indifferent. There’s not much room for error.”

Last week, as Stefaniak was packing up items to take to his chambers in the Lake County Juvenile Justice Center, Cappas stopped by to joke with Stefaniak about getting his stuff out of Cappas’ office.

Stefaniak was in the process of going through employee surveys, asking their job title and duties, what value they bring to juvenile court, what the juvenile court system does well and what could be improved upon, and what they want him as judge to know.

Many of the approximately 170 employees have worked in the juvenile system for 15 or 20 years or longer, he said.

“When you talk to the people and you meet them, you see the passion in the way they conduct themselves,” he said.

As for Cappas, Stefaniak said he brings a well-rounded career history and personality, having served as a public defender, deputy prosecutor and criminal and civil attorney.

“I think he has the common sense and will apply a practical approach in getting through the day’s business,” Stefaniak said. “I predict he will do well.”

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