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Editorial: All who serve as judges should be lawyers

February 16, 2011
stoner-mark-mugBW Stoner
shewmaker-terry-mugBW Shewmaker

By Judges Mark Stoner and Terry Shewmaker

The Indiana trial court system has several types of courts: Circuit, Superior, Small Claims and one Probate court. In 2009, 1.5 million cases were filed in those courts and all of the cases were heard by judges who are lawyers. Those judges are in good standing with disciplinary authorities and licensed to practice law in Indiana.

Indiana also has approximately 75 City and Town courts. In 2009, 375,000 cases, including criminal misdemeanors and speeding tickets, were heard in these courts. Not all of the judges in those courts are lawyers. Some cities and towns do not require it.

Senate Bill 312 would require all judges in Indiana to be lawyers. Judges who are not lawyers would be allowed to complete their current terms. Their replacements would have to be lawyers in good standing, admitted to practice law in Indiana.

The Indiana Judicial Conference (judges from across the state) and the Strategic Planning Committee of the Conference strongly support SB 312. Indiana judges believe that non-lawyers serving as City and Town court judges attempt to perform their duties to the best of their abilities. We simply believe that in matters of great importance to Indiana citizens, a person who has graduated from law school and passed the bar exam should hear the case.

Hoosiers have important constitutional and statutory rights. Most people think of serious felony cases when they think of constitutional rights. They think of television trials like those shown on “Law & Order.” But Hoosiers have important rights which apply even in matters such as speeding tickets. Citizens having cases heard in City and Town courts can lose their driving privileges or even be jailed. It is important that judges follow all statutes and apply the law properly in all cases. SB 312 would protect Hoosiers’ rights by ensuring that law-trained judges preside over all cases in Indiana, from murder to divorce to speeding tickets.

Most Indiana citizens will never see the inside of a courtroom for a serious felony offense or a complicated contract dispute. But many Indiana citizens will receive a speeding ticket, a parking ticket, or have an issue with their driver’s license that must be resolved in court. We believe all Hoosiers deserve to have a law-trained judge resolving these disputes.

This proposal is just one reform proposed by the Strategic Planning Committee as part of a bigger plan called The New Way Forward. More information can be found at www.courts.in.gov/committees/strategic/. E-mail us with suggestions or words of support.•

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The Hon. Mark Stoner
is a judge in Marion Superior Court, and The Hon. Terry Shewmaker, is judge in the Elkhart Circuit Court. They are co-chairs of the Strategic Planning Committee of the Indiana Judicial Conference. The opinions expressed in this column are the authors’.

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