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EDITORIAL: Judge selection needs hard thought

March 19, 2016

Lawmakers adjourned this month without creating a new system for selecting Marion County judges. That’s no crisis. The next judicial election isn’t scheduled until 2018, which means the General Assembly has another year to craft a plan.

We ask Marion County’s legislative delegation to use that time wisely.

The Legislature had been poised to establish a merit-based judicial selection process, which would use a nominating commission to review candidates and recommend finalists to the governor, who would then make an appointment. Those judges would then stand for retention votes after a specified term.

The proposal—similar to the way appellate judges are chosen— stalled over “minute details,” House Speaker Brian Bosma told IBJ’s Hayleigh Colombo.

Merit selection would be a radical change from the current election system, which a federal appeals court last year declared unconstitutional. Under the previous process, judicial candidates were endorsed by the major political parties during a slating process, and people who ran against the slate in the primary almost never won.

Then in the general election, the parties each would run the same number of candidates, just enough so—combined—the winners filled the open seats. As a result, voters were essentially shut out of the process.

But just because the federal courts threw out that ridiculous process doesn’t mean any election would be unacceptable. Most counties in Indiana use partisan elections to choose local judges. Vanderburgh and Allen counties use non-partisan elections. St. Joseph and Lake counties use a merit system.

We are not advocating for one system over another. Each has advantages. A merit system lets people who know the law pick a person they think is most qualified. An election lets the people governed by the decisions judges make have a significant say in who holds the offices.

And there are political implications for each system. An election favors Democratic candidates because Marion County now leans left of center. A merit system could favor Republican applicants because the state leans to the right, meaning a governor is more likely to be a Republican.

The good news is that policymakers have a year to think about what to do. Discussions with a broad array of stakeholders—including the public—are a must. Selection systems in other communities should be studied. The final plan shouldn’t be one backed only by Republicans, even though they control the General Assembly.

The court’s 36 judges typically resolve nearly 40,000 criminal cases, 200,000 traffic cases and 50,000 civil cases each year. And many of the most important cases in the state are filed in Marion County—including challenges to decisions or rules made by state agencies or the governor.

That makes this decision too important to be politicized.•

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