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House passes St. Joseph judicial election bill

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In a historically notable vote, the Indiana House of Representatives passed a bill that would elect St. Joseph Superior judges rather than stick with a merit-selection and retention system in place for 35 years.

The 88-3 vote came about 4 p.m. Thursday on House Bill 1491, authored by Rep. Craig Fry, D-Mishawaka. Voting against the bill were attorney Reps. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville, and Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville.

St. Joseph is one of two counties where Superior Court judges are chosen by a local nominating commission on their judicial merits, appointed by the governor, and then face voter retention in elections. The remaining 90 Hoosier counties use the election method, with two - Allen and Vanderburgh - using non-partisan elections; Marion County has a slating process, as well.

Fry's proposal sets up non-partisan elections every six years. Similar legislation has been pitched for years, but this is the first time it's made it out of committee and subsequently to the full House and passed. Fry noted that it's the first time in recent memory that any of the county's members have together supported the issue.

"Perhaps by making them stand for general election, our judges will realize that they need to be accountable and that their courts are not private kingdoms," Fry said.

Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Lakeville, amended the bill earlier in the week to restrict and cap campaign contributions of any judicial candidate. Her amendment prohibits a Superior judge candidate from receiving any money from political party or political action committee, and bans them from getting more than $500 from one person, $1,000 from any two or more people from a single law firm, or more than $10,000 in total contributions.

Aside from those opposing votes, Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary - who in the past has proposed similar legislation focusing on Lake County's system - was the only person who stepped up to the podium to question Fry. He asked that since Fry was the person who "led the charge" for the St. Joe bill, if he'd commit to doing the same next year for Lake County. Fry said he would; Brown voted for the legislation.

The bill now moves to the Senate, which is expected to offer less support for the legislation. No senators have signed on as sponsors. Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, who is also an attorney, declined to comment on the legislation, but Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and also the interim summer panel that was against the idea, said he is opposed to the bill.

"Why do we even have a courts' commission if we do things like this?" the veteran senator asked, referring to the House ignoring the recommendation made last fall against changing the system.

"I don't know yet how I feel about statewide merit selection for trial courts, but in a county where it's been working for so long we aren't going to turn around and go back down that path," he said. "I'm not saying I like every judge in Indiana, but it sets a terrible precedent to change an entire system if you don't like a particular judge's decision based on the law. I find that a bit offensive."

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