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House approves merit-selection system for Marion County judges

February 2, 2017

Marion County judges would be selected by a nominating commission and the governor—rather than through elections—under legislation passed by the Indiana House that now moves to the Senate for consideration.

House Bill 1036 would replace a judicial selection system that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals deemed unconstitutional. Lawmakers must act before the 2018 elections.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, said the proposed system aims “for a judiciary that represents the makeup of Marion County while also balancing the distinct responsibilities of these courts.”

“As home to the state capitol, Marion County’s courts are unique in that they have certain jurisdiction in cases that come from all over Indiana,” Steuerwald said. “The commission created through this legislation would help ensure a diverse, qualified bench while limiting the influence of either political party.”

The House passed the bill 68-29 with most Democrats voting against it.

Democratic state Rep. Ed Delaney was an exception. He supported the bill, saying that he believes the new system will preserve the diversity that exists in the unconstitutional system. He said he was proud to work on the bill.

But other Democrats from across the state said they believe the merit selection system essentially disenfranchises minority voters. 

Eighty-seven of the state’s 92 counties have elections for judges, and some lawmakers said it is not a coincidence that those that have merit selection processes—including Lake and St. Joseph counties—have high minority populations.

“You’re telling us we’re not capable of choosing or electing individuals,” said Rep. Greg Porter of Indianapolis. “We are. We are intelligent. We do understand. We understand the judges and who would represent us in a meaningful way. This is important to us.”

Porter compared instituting the merit selection system to efforts that he believes have suppressed minority voters, including the state’s voter ID law.

Democratic state Rep. Ryan Dvorak of South Bend spoke against the bill as well, saying he believes the system creates “an equal protection issue that will probably come before the courts."

But supporters, including GOP co-author Rep. Dave Frizzell of Indianapolis, said the merit selection system makes sense for Marion County because those courts handle 20 percent of the cases in the state. The bill “ensures we have the best possible judges we can possibly have in this county,” he said.

Under the system that was ruled unconstitutional, both parties “slated” ballot positions with judicial candidates who made significant financial contributions to their respective parties. Each party filled its ballots after primary elections with the exact number of judges to be elected, meaning each party was always equally represented in the court system.

House Bill 1036 would create a 14-member selection commission, which would vet and nominate three judicial candidates to the governor when a vacancy occurs. The governor would then appoint one of the nominees to fill the vacancy. The bill requires the commission to take into account whether judicial candidates reflect the diversity and makeup of Marion County.

After serving a term, those judges would then be eligible for retention votes.

The commission would include members appointed by Indiana House and Senate leaders from both parties, county political party leaders, the Indianapolis Bar Association, Marion County Bar Association, Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana and the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association. One judge of the Indiana Court of Appeals and one Indiana Supreme Court justice would also serve on the committee.

To jump-start the system, the 36 sitting Marion County judges would be split into three retention classes, based on judicial seniority. The first class of 12 judges would be up for retention elections on the 2020 ballot; the second class on the 2022 ballot; and the final class on the 2024 ballot. After their election, each judge who is retained would serve a six-year term.

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