Should all judges be lawyers?

October 27, 2008
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From IL reporter Michael Hoskins:

If you’re responsible for applying the law, no matter if the case is a traffic infraction or a civil or criminal proceeding, is a law license required? The answer is no, but it’s a topic being debated as it applies to city and town court judges.

The Commission on Courts on Friday talked about whether all of Indiana’s city and town court judges should have to be attorneys in good standing. Only 10 have that requirement now, while 56 city or town courts don’t have the attorney requirement. There are 35 layman judges at that level without a law degree. Some think it should apply to everyone on the bench.

Chief Justice Randall Shepard is in favor of the idea, noting that these judges are on the front lines and litigants must have the best possible legal representation from everyone at that level. Often, higher courts of record and the appellate level must handle the consequences of what comes from those most-local courtrooms and it makes sense for attorneys to be the ones issuing those decisions, he said. But the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns and several local judges are opposed to the idea. IACT attorney Jodie Woods said this falls under the home rule umbrella and it isn’t right to force an area with few attorneys to have to pick one of those to be a judge.

Three attended the commission meeting, including Jeffersonville City Judge Kenneth Pierce who offered a more neutral viewpoint. While he truly thinks these judges should be attorneys (he is licensed), he knows sitting non-attorney judges with more experience and expertise than some attorneys.

Some compromises were laid out, such as removing a residency requirement that would allow out-of-city or town court judges to serve a nearby jurisdiction; and applying the law-degree requirement only for the future so all sitting judges would remain on the bench until they chose not to run. Commission members weren’t all convinced and a motion to recommend this to lawmakers failed, but the idea will likely come up again. The chief justice noted that this issue is not an emergency, but a useful idea that could take years to implement statewide.
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