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Merit-selection override a possibility

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The state's top executive has rejected the idea of scrapping merit selection in St. Joseph County, but it remains unclear whether lawmakers will attempt to override that veto during a special session.

On the final day he had to take action, Gov. Mitch Daniels used his veto power for the third time this session and rejected House Enrolled Act 1491, which called for non-partisan elections to choose the county's eight Superior judges for six-year terms. It also called for the creation of a sixth Court of Appeals district and panel starting in July 2011.

In his veto message, Daniels wrote: "The current method of selecting judges for the St. Joseph Superior Court has prevailed successfully for 35 years. It is a model to be emulated, not discarded. It is not broken; it requires no repair. It has produced outstanding jurists and contains sufficient measures of public accountability. I believe it neither necessary nor wise to re-politicize the courts of St. Joseph County."

On the appellate panel aspect, the governor wrote, "The addition of another panel to the Court of Appeals at $2 million per year is difficult to justify in today's challenging fiscal environment. Moreover, if I were to sign a bill linking these two proposals, it could contribute to public cynicism by creating the appearance that my acquiescence was purchased with more appointments. Whatever the merits of expanding the Court of Appeals may be, they should be considered alone."

While the legislation's author, Rep. Craig Fry, D-Mishawaka, didn't return telephone messages from Indiana Lawyer after the governor's veto, he told the South Bend Tribune that a veto override is still possible if Senate Republicans are willing to take that step.

A simple majority of both houses, which means 51 in the House and 26 in the Senate - is needed to override the veto. Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, could not be reached late Wednesday or Thursday morning to comment on the veto or possibility of an override.

But if the General Assembly's action earlier in the session on this legislation is a sign, there could be enough support - the House voted 88-3 on the bill aimed at St. Joseph County's judicial selection, and the Senate voted 35-15 to pass an amended version adding the appellate court component.

St. Joseph judges were pleased with the governor's decision, saying Daniels correctly articulated the system as one that works and should remain in place. Even those judges who are currently elected agreed.

"This wouldn't have affected me, but directly impacts my (Superior Court) colleagues," Circuit Judge Michael Gotsch said this morning. "The governor hit it right on the head, saying it should be emulated."

Despite being elected, Judge Gotsch said he prefers merit selection because it offers a choice; he ran unopposed in a judicial campaign, as did the county's other elected jurist, Probate Judge Peter Nemeth.

"If someone wants to run a campaign against a sitting Superior judge and raise questions about their record, let's do that. But no one has ever done that," he said. "How do we know if it works it if it hasn't been tested? It made no sense to throw the whole system out without testing it first."

Indiana State Bar Association president Bill Jonas, a South Bend attorney, was pleased with the veto decision and the language Daniels used in the message.

"What I appreciated the most was that it showed real statesmanship, and his willingness to rise above partisan politics and do what's right as an elected official," Jonas said. "We had met with the governor's legal staff and they indicated his strong commitment to judicial independence and fiscal responsibility. We hoped that would carry through, and it's obvious that it has."

Jonas realizes the battle isn't finished and will be watching closely for any possible veto override action. The state bar association plans to increase its efforts in the coming months to educate the public and legal community about the merit-selection and retention system, an effort that will heavily involve civic education, he said. The ISBA is working with the Indiana Judges Association on this effort to expand the merit-selection and retention system to other parts of the state, he said.

"We have a third branch of government that's independent, and 1491 was an effort to go a little farther than the legislature should in getting involved in the judiciary," Jonas said. "When you talk about this issue with people, who can't name all three branches of government, it's a real challenge to get through, and is indicative of the challenges we face."
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