ILNews

Moving forward on merit selection: Judiciary, bar association support statewide change

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
An effort that began more than 50 years ago is being resurrected and could eventually reshape how judges are selected throughout Indiana.

Stars are aligning for a multi-faceted thrust toward merit selection and retention for all trial judges statewide, an endeavor that's been brewing behind the scenes for years but is now gaining more steam from the state's judiciary and largest bar associations.

While no guarantee exists that lawmakers would even consider such a change, key players supporting the concept in the legal community agree that it would help secure judicial independence and improve the state's judiciary by removing election campaigning components. 


Click here to read the ISBA House of Delegates' resolution supporting merit selection and retention for all trial judges statewide, as well as proposed legislation that will be sent to the Commission on Courts."This debate on selecting judges is as old as the country, and this is all a fascinating echo of how we got started on this path here," Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard said. "There are people who advance the democratic ideal that they should be able to elect a candidate, and that's a very American way of looking at it. But that doesn't take into effect how you feel if you end up in court for a custody battle and learn that your ex-spouse made a large campaign contribution to the particular judge. It's important to think forward how you'll feel that morning."

So far, the Indiana State Bar Association is leading the way with a resolution and proposed legislation that could be taken to lawmakers as soon as the next session of the General Assembly. The ISBA's House of Delegates adopted the proposal during its annual meeting in early October, supporting statewide merit selection for trial judges and outlining a potential process for choosing local jurists.

For all counties, bipartisan commissions made up of attorneys and civilians would be formed to review and interview potential jurists before submitting finalists' names to the governor for appointment. The chief justice would have the duty to appoint a judge if the commission didn't do so within 30 days. That group would also provide periodic, meaningful evaluation of judges and share those findings with the public prior to any retention election, according to the proposal.

The ISBA also recommends Allen, Lake, Marion, St. Joseph, and Vanderburgh counties have 11 commission members. A group of remaining large counties would have nine members, and smaller counties would have seven-member commissions.

The final language of the proposal came from the ISBA's Improvements in the Judicial System Committee in the past year, but work began at least four years ago through a subcommittee chaired by Indianapolis attorney Philip S. Kappes, who has been practicing law for six decades and watched firsthand the changes in the appellate judicial system about 40 years ago.

He doesn't want lawmakers to immediately vote on this issue but instead wants the bar associations and judiciary to get input from the public and interested organizations. Then, lawmakers can see what's possible.

"We don't pretend to have the final answer, but we hope our ideas can start the discussion again," he said. "That proposed legislation can be the lightening rod for this thing, and we hope people can take that and chew on it."

The Indianapolis Bar Association has also offered a resolution supporting merit selection in the past and continues discussing the issue, said Julie Armstrong, IBA executive director.

History shows that the idea for all-merit selection has been posed in some form since 1948, but lawmakers seriously started eyeing the concept in 1962 when state Supreme Court jurists were elected. One in particular authored a decision that angered a particular interest group, and that organization successfully waged a campaign to defeat him. A result was support for removing elections from the system. Though the effort failed in subsequent years, it eventually gained enough support in the late 1960s. At that time, two lawmakers introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would have provided for merit selection of all Indiana judges. A watered-down version eventually made it through two legislative sessions, with only the appellate courts undergoing the change - 58 percent of voters approved it in 1970, and the constitutional restructuring occurred in 1971.
 That system remains, though trial courts have tried various methods - including Lake and St. Joseph counties that saw legislative changes in 1973 put them on the merit selection system. Of Indiana's 92 counties with trial courts, all but four hold partisan elections to select Superior and Circuit judges. Allen and Vanderburgh counties use non-partisan elections open to anyone who wants to run, while Lake and St. Joseph counties use the merit selection system where a local nominating commission reviews applicants, submits names to the governor for consideration, and then requires those appointees to face a retention vote on the ballot within four to six years.

"We hope people recognize how well the appellate court and Supreme Court have been functioning, that this quality piece of the judiciary speaks to the process," said Kappes, adding perhaps now's the right time.

Opposition to the idea exists, as illustrated by failed legislation during the last session that called for ending merit-based selection. The sponsor was Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend, who is now a member of the Commission on Courts and was recently inducted to the state's bar.

At a recent meeting, Dvorak voiced concern about the concept because it seemed to give too much authority to the governor, who makes the final choice from the nominees submitted for consideration. He worried about the elected governor coming up with his own litmus test, deciding who might be the best judge based on the governor's agenda.

The Commission on Courts is expected to discuss merit selection and retention at its next meeting, as it has done at several previous meetings. The legislative study committee has already delved into public awareness about merit selection and retention and those judges coming up for a vote, and an Oct. 3 meeting was packed with discussion about the Lake and St. Joseph judicial-selection systems. An envoy of elected, bar association, and court officials traveled to Indianapolis to tell the commission that the St. Joseph system shouldn't be changed. They also said Lake County's system should be expanded to include the four county divisions of the Superior Court that are elected and handle small claims and criminal cases involving potential prison sentences of less than three years.

Justice Frank Sullivan urged the commission to not change the system in St. Joseph County, where he is from, and Justice Robert Rucker did the same for his home base of Lake County.

St. Joseph Superior Judge Michael Scopelitis, who is a governor appointee, testified that judicial elections are a serious threat to judicial independence. He cited a personal example where a local interest group put up a billboard against him after he ruled part of a business ordinance was unconstitutional.

"All they cared about was whether I agreed with their agenda, not whether I was fair and impartial or whether it was a well-reasoned opinion," he said. "That's the threat. You're not a better judge because of merit selection; it's just a better process."

Aside from what the legislative commission is already considering, more input may be coming from the state's top judicial leaders. The state Judicial Conference's strategic planning committee is exploring the topic and is expected to finalize drafts in coming months. Recommendations are expected to be presented to the conference Oct. 31, according to Marion Superior Judge Mark Stoner, who co-chairs the committee with Elkhart Circuit Judge Terry Shewmaker. Judge Stoner said everything is still in draft form and he'd prefer to not discuss the issues until more is finalized.

But Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Judge John Baker, who is a member of that committee, said in early September that monumental changes are being contemplated.

"Everything imaginable is being discussed," he said, noting that he expects the judiciary to offer a court-reform proposal on the heels of a local government reform report issued late last year. That report was the one created by a commission cochaired by Chief Justice Shepard, who is a proponent of this effort and court restructuring and also a member of the Commission on Courts.

The chief justice cited high-dollar campaigning in other states as evidence of the potential election dangers.

"There's not a lot of coverage on this point in Indiana, but one only needs to look around at what's happening in neighboring states to see how interestgroup politics and money has influenced judicial elections," he said. "It's important to think about what kind of justice the public expects or can hope for, having that fair and impartial decision maker. Although a situation might really be fair, we don't feel good about it because there's not an appearance of fair play. Perception and reality are close first cousins." •
ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Good luck, but as I have documented in three Hail Mary's to the SCOTUS, two applications (2007 & 2013),a civil rights suit and my own kicked-to-the-curb prayer for mandamus. all supported in detailed affidavits with full legal briefing (never considered), the ISC knows that the BLE operates "above the law" (i.e. unconstitutionally) and does not give a damn. In fact, that is how it was designed to control the lawyers. IU Law Prof. Patrick Baude blew the whistle while he was Ind Bar Examiner President back in 1993, even he was shut down. It is a masonic system that blackballs those whom the elite disdain. Here is the basic thrust:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackballing When I asked why I was initially denied, the court's foremost jester wrote back that the ten examiners all voted, and I did not gain the needed votes for approval (whatever that is, probably ten) and thus I was not in .. nothing written, no explanation, just go away or appeal ... and if you appeal and disagree with their system .. proof positive you lack character and fitness. It is both arbitrary and capricious by its very design. The Hoosier legal elites are monarchical minded, and rejected me for life for ostensibly failing to sufficiently respect man's law (due to my stated regard for God's law -- which they questioned me on, after remanding me for a psych eval for holding such Higher Law beliefs) while breaking their own rules, breaking federal statutory law, and violating federal and state constitutions and ancient due process standards .. all well documented as they "processed me" over many years.... yes years ... they have few standards that they will not bulldoze to get to the end desired. And the ISC knows this, and they keep it in play. So sad, And the fed courts refuse to do anything, and so the blackballing show goes on ... it is the Indy way. My final experience here: https://www.scribd.com/document/299040062/Brown-ind-Bar-memo-Pet-cert I will open my files to anyone interested in seeing justice dawn over Indy. My cases are an open book, just ask.

  2. Looks like 2017 will be another notable year for these cases. I have a Grandson involved in a CHINS case that should never have been. He and the whole family are being held hostage by CPS and the 'current mood' of the CPS caseworker. If the parents disagree with a decision, they are penalized. I, along with other were posting on Jasper County Online News, but all were quickly warned to remove posts. I totally understand that some children need these services, but in this case, it was mistakes, covered by coorcement of father to sign papers, lies and cover-ups. The most astonishing thing was within 2 weeks of this child being placed with CPS, a private adoption agency was asking questions regarding child's family in the area. I believe a photo that was taken by CPS manager at the very onset during the CHINS co-ocerment and the intent was to make money. I have even been warned not to post or speak to anyone regarding this case. Parents have completed all requirements, met foster parents, get visitation 2 days a week, and still the next court date is all the way out till May 1, which gives them(CPS) plenty of to time make further demands (which I expect) No trust of these 'seasoned' case managers, as I have already learned too much about their dirty little tricks. If they discover that I have posted here, I expect they will not be happy and penalized parents again. Still a Hostage.

  3. They say it was a court error, however they fail to mention A.R. was on the run from the law and was hiding. Thus why she didn't receive anything from her public defender. Step mom is filing again for adoption of the two boys she has raised. A.R. is a criminal with a serious heroin addiction. She filed this appeal MORE than 30 days after the final decision was made from prison. Report all the facts not just some.

  4. Hysteria? Really Ben? Tell the young lady reported on in the link below that worrying about the sexualizing of our children is mere hysteria. Such thinking is common in the Royal Order of Jesters and other running sex vacays in Thailand or Brazil ... like Indy's Jared Fogle. Those tempted to call such concerns mere histronics need to think on this: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-12-year-old-girl-live-streamed-her-suicide-it-took-two-weeks-for-facebook-to-take-the-video-down/ar-AAlT8ka?li=AA4ZnC&ocid=spartanntp

  5. This is happening so much. Even in 2016.2017. I hope the father sue for civil rights violation. I hope he sue as more are doing and even without a lawyer as pro-se, he got a good one here. God bless him.

ADVERTISEMENT