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House committee split, justice election bill stuck

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Legislation aimed at changing how the Indiana Supreme Court justices are chosen hasn't gotten enough support to make it out of committee for now, getting a split vote from lawmakers that means it won't be going to the full House for consideration.

The Government and Regulatory Reform Committee added to its agenda this morning House Joint Resolution 9, which would amend the state's Constitution to require that justices be elected instead of being chosen based on merit and later retained by voters. Rep. Craig Fry, D-Mishawka, proposed the resolution in January to put the makeup of the high court in the public's hands and provide more accountability.

Currently, the seven-member Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission chooses state appellate judges through a merit-selection process and submits finalists' names to the governor, who makes the final decision. Voters can then cast ballots periodically after that to retain or boot that judge. The system's been in place since 1971, and two counties - St. Joseph and Lake - followed suit for Superior judges in 1973.

As detailed in HJR9, the General Assembly would divide Indiana into three districts, with one justice being elected by voters in each of those jurisdictions and two justices being chosen by all voters statewide.

Fry's measure was originally referred to the Committee on Courts and Criminal Code, but was reassigned to the reform committee on Thursday and added to the agenda this week.

But by a 5-5 vote, the legislative committee has voted not to send the measure to the full House at this point. Two members were absent and didn't vote, while at least two voting that it move on pointed out they weren't opposed to merit selection and might vote against HJR9 on the floor. The deadline for committee action is Thursday.

Three people testified before the committee against the measure - Indiana State Bar Association legislative counsel Paje Felts, Terre Haute attorney Stephen Williams who sits on the Judicial Nominating Commission, and Indianapolis attorney Tom Schultz who is president of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana.

Felts told lawmakers that the ISBA helped change the system decades ago, and that Indiana is looked to as a national model of how to put justices on the bench.

Williams focused on the nominating commission end, while Schultz told lawmakers that changing the selection system could have a negative impact on the economy because businesses might not want to locate to a state where multi-million dollar judicial elections are being held.

Committee chair Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, voted in support of sending this resolution to the full House for consideration because it's controversial and should be discussed, whether the merit selection system works or not.

"This is a time of transparency and accountability, and it's extremely important that taxpayers.... be able to have a say," he said.

Rep. Phil Hinkle, R-Indianapolis, recalled visiting another state back in the 1970s and seeing television coverage of 18 prosecutor candidates being interviewed - full of negative ads and indications of large amounts of money being raised.

"We start having mudslinging and it's going to hurt the quality of our candidates," he said. "I don't see why we'd go there."

Before voting against the resolution, another lawmaker said, "I don't want a Democrat judge or a Republican judge; I just want a judge."

Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, and Rep. John Barnes, D-Indianapolis, both indicated that while they wanted more discussion by lawmakers, they'd likely vote against the measure if it reached the full House.

Since it's a constitutional amendment, HJR9 would have to be voted on in two consecutive General Assembly sessions and then ratified a majority of state voters before it would become law.

While Fry's resolution hasn't gotten enough committee support, another of his proposals - House Bill 1491 that calls for electing St. Joseph Superior judges - has momentum, making it out of committee unanimously and the House voting 88-3 in favor of it on Feb. 12. The bill has gone on to the Senate for consideration, with Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, signing on as a sponsor.

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