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Hebenstreit: Judicial Elections Just Around the Corner

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IBA-hebenstreitI know, the elections are over and everyone wants to get back to normal life again … but the process is beginning again.

One of the bedrocks of a solid democracy is the ability of citizens to air their differences before a fair and impartial judiciary. In Marion County, we have been blessed with a solid group of judges which we certainly hope will continue. The judges in Marion County are elected in the General Elections to serve a term of 6 years. There are 2 groups of judges who are elected in differing years. The next group will be up for election next November when we all go to the polls to vote for President and Governor, but the real decisions will be made long before that. In fact, the judicial candidates have been making the political rounds for some time already.

Under the current system, there will likely be 10 judicial candidates from each major political party on the November ballot. Typically, all 20 will be elected as it is unusual to see third party candidates run, let alone win. Thus, the true contest occurs at the slating conventions and in the Primary election. Each party holds a slating convention in February and recommends the 10 candidates that party hopes will be on the November ballot. Other candidates may participate in the Primary election in May 2012, and the 10 who have the highest number of votes of each party will be on the ballot for the General election.

The debate continues about whether it is better to have the general electorate choose judges or have some other process. In smaller counties, it is not uncommon for the citizens to actually know the judicial candidates and be able to express their personal opinion at the polls. That is dramatically different in Marion County. By and large, most voters have no idea about the qualifications of the judicial candidates and many lawyers who are not litigators probably do not know either. That is the reason for JEPAC.

Who better to determine the qualifications of the judiciary than the attorneys who practice in front of those judges on a daily basis? The stated purpose for JEPAC is “to conduct and publicize non-partisan evaluations of Marion County judicial candidates to promote the fair and effective selection of qualified judicial candidates in Marion County.” Over the years, the process has undergone many changes.

In the past, the members of JEPAC have individually interviewed the candidates and made recommendations. In the most recent judicial elections, with the assistance of a Wabash College professor, the Board of JEPAC created a written survey. That survey is then submitted to all attorneys who have entered an appearance in the Marion County Clerk’s office within the last three years for response. It reaches in excess of 8,000 attorneys, and requests that the responding attorneys only evaluate the candidates with whom they have had personal contact or knowledge. The survey is quite comprehensive and covers a number of criteria for evaluating the competence, demeanor and professionalism of the candidates. After tabulation, the results are published to assist the general public make an informed decision when at the polls.

This year, the work of JEPAC will be accelerated. Since the selection of candidates takes place at the respective party’s slating conventions (usually held in February), the results will be ready prior to those conventions. According to the Resolution creating JEPAC, members of the PAC are selected by the President of the IndyBar. Since a good bit of the work of the PAC will be accomplished during Scott Chinn’s term of office, he and I each had input in the selection of the members. Past President of the IndyBar, Joe Russell, and Past President of the IBF, Lante Earnest, have agreed to co-lead the PAC as the Chair and Treasurer respectively. There is an even presence of Republican, Democrat and Independent representation on the Board. Under their leadership, the 2011-2012 evaluations will be determined and published.

As with any human endeavor, there is room for conflict and disagreement. Nevertheless, JEPAC has proven to be an effective method of evaluating the judicial candidates who will be elected by the citizens of Marion County. If you receive one of the evaluations, please take the time to respond in a fair and thoughtful manner. Our clients and the citizens of Marion County deserve to continue to have a competent and professional judiciary to resolve their disputes.•

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