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EDITORIAL: Judicial selection process must be open

January 28, 2017

A deeply important legislative debate—but one happening largely under the radar—will determine how Marion County elects its 36 Superior Court judges.

This is a crucial issue for the thousands of residents who interact with the court system every year—not just as defendants but through divorces, real estate disputes, lawsuits and more. But it’s also a highly charged political issue.

Under the old system—deemed unconstitutional by a federal appeals court— judicial candidates were endorsed by the two major political parties and nearly always won in the primary. Then in the general election, the parties would each run the same number of candidates, just enough to fill the open seats. So, in the end, each party always kept an equal number of judges in office. The federal appeals court said that process gave voters no real choices.

A bill authored by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, proposes to replace the old system with one that nearly mirrors the way the state replaces its appellate judges.

Under House Bill 1036—which passed the Courts and Criminal Code Committee and is now before the full House—a 14-member Marion County Judicial Selection Committee would consider applicants for a vacancy and recommend three finalists to the governor, who would select the judge.

Appointments to the selection committee would be made by Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, various law groups and political party chairs. A member of the Indiana Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals also would be on the committee.

In general, Steuerwald’s proposal appears to be a fine place to start the discussion. No doubt, Democrats will have some concern about giving the governor—a Republican—the final say. After all, if Marion County voters were to choose their judges in a real election, most of the winners would likely be Democrats.

We urge Republicans—who control both the House and Senate—to listen to the concerns of Democrats. It would be unwise and unfair to design a system that created an advantage for one party over another.

Our larger concern with the legislation is that it might not provide the transparency the process deserves.

The law that created the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission includes a number of specific protections for public access that Steuerwald’s bill does not. According to a memo prepared by Steve Key, president of the Hoosier State Press Association, the legislation does not specifically require that the commission publicly disclose the names of all candidates seeking a judgeship. Nor does it specify that the applications be made available to the public.

There’s no sign that Steuerwald intended to create a backroom process. In fact, the legislation states that the commission is subject to state laws governing open meetings and public records.

But we would be more comfortable—as would the press association—if public access were made clearer with the addition of the same language that appears in the selection of appellate judges. Key said Steuerwald appears receptive to doing just that, and we appreciate his openness. We look forward to seeing the changes.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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