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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ind. Courts - An Election That Matters: Judicial Primaries One Week from Today [Corrected Table]

Commentary by Joel Schumm, professor at Indiana University's Robert H. McKinney School of Law

A recent Indianapolis Star article, which focused on Congressional elections, called next week’s primary “a sleepy affair.” Not so for those concerned about trial courts across the state, where each judge makes potentially life-altering decisions for Hoosiers on a daily basis.

The 2009 A New Way Forward report (from the Strategic Planning Committee of the Indiana Judicial Conference) observed with regard to the 2008 trial court elections that: “in reality, the public may not have a meaningful choice in counties where direct election of judges takes place. In approximately 70% of all recent judicial elections, a judge runs for a specific court with no opposition or runs in a multiple court selection process where the judge is guaranteed to win. In these elections, the general public has little or no ability to remove an ineffective judge from office.” Six years later, most judicial races remain uncontested, although the primaries are of much greater consequence than the general election for most judicial candidates.

Excluding Marion County, candidates face primary opponents in 29 (22%) of the 132 Democratic or Republican judicial races. Only 14 of these judicial seats include both Democratic and Republican opponents, which means, barring the late entry of candidates in races without primary candidates (which may but seldom does happen through party appointment for any race), 118 (89%) uncontested races in the fall.

Challenges to Incumbent Judges

Excluding Marion County, only nine incumbent trial court judges face a primary opponent next week:

Even if the incumbent judge prevails in the Jennings Superior races, he will face a general election opponent. Barring a late entry by party appointment, the other races will not be contested in the General Election.

Marion County Madness

By statute, Marion County voters will select 8 Democratic and 8 Republican candidates in the primary. Each is assured victory in the November “election” where 16 seats are available, unless an independent or third-party candidate were to enter the race. As previously discussed in the ILB blog, the constitutionality of the statute is in some doubt in light of a federal court lawsuit challenging the denial of the right to cast a meaningful vote, which has withstood a motion to dismiss.

The Republican primary includes only eight candidates, but those voting in the Democratic primary will be allowed to vote for eight of the following eleven candidates:

The ballot will not inform voters that Christ-Garcia, Crawford, Dreyer, and Osborn are incumbent judges or that Davis, Flowers, Klineman, and Pratt join them as the eight candidates endorsed or “slated” by the party. However, a list of the slated candidates is being distributed during early voting and will surely be given to voters at polling places around the county next Tuesday. That may be enough to carry the slate in a low turnout race that draws highly motivated and presumably party-loyal voters. Or perhaps the Democratic party will take more aggressive steps in pushing its candidates, such as the “Say No to the O’s” mailers from Republicans in 2012 that took aim at Carol Orbison and Paul Ogden, the two non-slated candidates.

Marion County’s single Circuit Court will be filled by a contested general election race between Democrat Sheryl Lynch and Republican Therese Hannah, each of whom face no primary opposition.

Marion County’s nine, unique, township-based small claims courts feature just one contested primary. Democrats living in Center Township will have a choice between incumbent Michelle Smith-Scott, the Marion County small claims court judge whose refusal to move her court from the basement of the City County Building to a location outside downtown was upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court last year and the party-slated candidate, Brenda Roper. This race represents a break from past practice of Democrats supporting incumbent judges. Republicans, in contrast, have declined to slate incumbent judges (most recently in 2008).

Judicial Election Trivia

Finally, two somewhat unusual developments may be worth watching next week. First, the new Hendricks Circuit Court judge could be elected with little more than 20% of the vote if the five candidates (the most for any judicial race in 2014) split the vote fairly evenly. The winner will not face a Democratic opponent in November.

Second, at least two judicial candidates have switched parties since their last election. Kitty Coriden (Bartholomew County) and Gary Smith (Jennings County) were elected as Democrats in 2008 but are running as Republicans in 2014. No Democratic opponents have filed for the Bartholomew County primary, but there is a possibility that opponents could be recruited by the party for the general election.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 29, 2014 02:48 PM
Posted to Schumm - Commentary