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Federal magistrate faces Senate committee

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A federal magistrate nominated to become a Southern District of Indiana judge went before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday afternoon.

Magistrate William Lawrence from Indianapolis faced committee members in Washington, D.C., to discuss why he should be promoted within the federal court's ranks. President George W. Bush selected him in February to succeed Judge John D. Tinder, whom the Senate confirmed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals last year.

Magistrate Lawrence was appointed in November 2002 but had worked at the state court level for many years before that. He had served as Marion Circuit judge since 1996 - he's credited for reducing the number of pending cases by 20 percent in less than three years. Before that, he had worked as a part-time master commissioner for more than 13 years and had also been a part-time public defender in the county for nine years.

During the hour-long confirmation hearing, Magistrate Lawrence received two questions - fewer than his two fellow nominees, who are up for judgeships with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia and the U.S. District Court of Arizona. The committee's acting chair, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, asked all three to talk about their commitment and philosophy on pro bono legal services.

Magistrate Lawrence mentioned his background as a public defender in Marion County, as well as his work in the late 1970s on a bar association task force that organized a pro bono panel that's been in effect in Indianapolis for several years now.

The magistrate also talked about his early years as a Marion Circuit judge and the creation of a consolidated paternity court, which he described as one of the first of its kind in the nation. The court provided a forum for establishing paternity and enabled those on welfare to collect support.

"In the beginning, we believed maybe we could collect $30 million," he said. "I'm happy to report that in 2004, that court was directly responsible for putting $80 million into pockets of single, head-of-household, custodial parents of children born out of wedlock, and I'm proud of that."

Later, Cardin pointed out a comment Magistrate Lawrence had made to a newspaper in 2002 when switching from the state to federal bench. That comment indicated how he was looking forward to the change because the administration of state court matters can often get caught up in partisan politics. The senator wanted Magistrate Lawrence to expand on that, in light of how he would be asked as a federal judge to weigh in on executive actions that could be interpreted to have partisan connections, such as executive power.

"I don't think there is politics..." Magistrate Lawrence responded. "When you're a judge ... you leave your agenda at the front door. I think part of the responsibilities of a judge is to provide a canvas for attorneys to try their case. A judge's ideology, preferences, dislikes play no part in the decision-making process a judge must render."

Cardin asked if he didn't have that comfort at the state level. Magistrate Lawrence explained how Marion County judges are elected on a strictly partisan basis that means running in primaries, attending local political functions, and raising money for the judicial races.

"Clearly, the very people we were asking for money are the very people that are going to be appearing in front of us after the election. I thought that was very distasteful, and I was very vocal about my opposition to that," he said.

With those two questions, the only other time Magistrate Lawrence spoke was when introducing himself and his family following an opening from both of Indiana's senators, Democrat Evan Bayh and Republican Richard Lugar, who appeared at his confirmation hearing and described him as being an excellent candidate for the job.

"I'm just happy to talk about something other than the Indiana primary coming up next Tuesday," Bayh said, getting a laugh from the committee. "The reason for that is that we in Indiana care about, frankly, a lot more important things than politics. One of them is ensuring that justice is dispensed here in our state and across our country."

If approved by the Senate, Magistrate Lawrence would be the Southern District's first magistrate judge to be elevated to the constitutionally established Article III judge status.

No timeline exists for when the committee must vote, but a confirmation vote could come within the next month as it did during Judge Tinder's confirmation process last year. If the committee approves his confirmation, the full Senate would then have to take a confirmation vote before it becomes official.
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