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

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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." •
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  1. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  2. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  3. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  4. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  5. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

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