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Friday, January 29, 2016

Ind. Courts - "Bill would create new way to select Marion County judges"

SB 352, addressing the issue of selection of Marion County Superior Court judges, post the 7th Circuit opinion, Common Cause v. Election Comm. (see this Jan. 9 IBJ article on the Marion County court issues and this Sept. 9th ILB post), was heard in Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 27th. The complexity of the bill, authored by Senator Michael Young, was increased by the addition of committee amendments, which now may be accessed via this DPA committeee report. The introduced version of SB 252 is here, the two documents must be read together until the bill is reprinted. However, the author testified at the committee hearing Wednesday that this bill was still a work in progress, that he planned to confer with the Chief Justice and that revisions likely would be offered on 2nd reading.

Kristine Guerra of the Indianapolis Star reports today on the bill. Some quotes:

Marion County's pay-to-play system of electing its judges has long been criticized as being highly political and an infringement on people's right to vote.

A new bill being debated in the legislature attempts to address some of that criticism by creating a new way of selecting judges in Marion County. Senate Bill 352, authored by Sen. R. Michael Young, forms a selection committee that will select and nominate judges. Once the judges' six-year term is over, voters can decide through primary and general elections whether or not they can stay on the bench.

Supporters say it's a well-balanced approach that gives voters, party leaders and members of the legal community some control over who should be Marion County's 36 superior court judges. But opponents say it does not alleviate a major problem in the current system: Political interests still play too much of a role in what's supposed to be a neutral and impartial judiciary.

What's highly criticized is the selection committee, which critics say is too top heavy with political actors. * * *

Under SB 352, the committee initially will appoint judges. Retention elections, in which voters will be asked if judges should stay on the bench, will be held once their six-year term is over. If a judge loses or chooses to not run, the committee will appoint someone to the open seat. If a judge resigns, the committee will nominate two candidates from a pool of applicants, and the governor will make the final decision.

Changing the status quo became necessary, after a federal judge ruled that the current judicial election system is unconstitutional. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.

Unlike the rest of the state, Marion County elects only party-slated judges. The two major political parties conduct primary elections in which they nominate candidates for the exact number of judicial seats to be filled — split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. By contributing money to their respective parties, the judicial candidates have a much better chance of securing an endorsement and winning a judicial seat in the election.

Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, said while Young's bill does give voters some say, it still firmly entrenches politics in the process of selecting judges. * * *

Vaughn, whose organization started the legal battle that eventually invalidated Marion County's judicial election process, said a merit selection system used in St. Joseph and Lake counties is more appropriate. Under that approach, a judicial nominating commission made up of lawyers and laypeople interviews applicants and recommends candidates to the governor, who makes the final decision. * * *

Young said Wednesday that he planned to meet with Loretta Rush, chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, to ensure SB 352 meets the state's Code of Judicial Conduct.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill in a 5-2 vote, and it will up for a second reading on the Senate floor.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 29, 2016 09:04 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts