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Indiana Judges Association: Legislative gridlock? Let the judges handle it

David J.
March 3, 2010
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Now that Sen. Evan Bayh has apparently adopted the "Bill Polian" approach to political football (rest now for a later challenge), the term "gridlock" is becoming more common than "gridiron." The public spotlight glares even more disapprovingly upon Congress, if that is possible. Recent polls suggest that as much as 86 percent of the public feels Congress is "broken." The remaining 14 percent are presumably members of Congress and their staffs.

Overall, we citizens go about our daily lives oblivious to all this Beltway blustering. We have mortgages, kids, jobs (hopefully), and, most importantly, our local communities. But in the legislative branch, there is often no objective standard for success or failure. There is no practical leverage for legislatures to actually accomplish anything. There is no assembly line, no product orders to fill, no specific job duties to perform.

So when legislative battle lines are drawn, some of us are left wondering what the real reasons are.

Many purportedly wise commentators develop diatribe after diatribe about the lack of civility as the culprit. But if one looks more closely, it seems like there is often too much civility to get anything done. For example, U.S. Senate gridlock is often blamed on the mysterious practice of "holds," in which any senator (even a brand new one) can block or delay any action on a treaty, nomination, or legislation. According to the Library of Congress, no one knows how or when this practice was started, but it is derived from the unwritten tradition of "senatorial courtesy" honored by every president since George Washington.

Well, the "courtesy" every senator enjoys is actually a strategic weapon. One senator recently held up the nominations of dozens of presidential appointees to gain White House attention to award some federal programs to the senator's home state. In the 1990s, there was a two-year battle of holds between opposing senators that blocked such unrelated topics as an incumbent Federal Trade Commission member, two federal judge nominees, and an education bill.

But Congress is hardly alone in its fitful charade. State legislatures all over the country share the same gridlock addiction. During the summer of 2009, the California state budget (eighth largest in the world) faced a catastrophic $27 billion deficit ... and the legislature would not come to an agreement. At the same time, the New York state legislature went into a complete one-month stalemate, even to the point of one party physically locking the other delegation out of the chamber as no action was taken on stacks of bills. Let's not forget the countless times in which our own Indiana General Assembly has been halted by a partisan "walkout" - something we judges call a "failure to appear."

So what to do?

There is one solution that has yet been tried. We judges do not have the luxury of "courtesy" or gridlock. Oh, there is a sure abundance of real civility in our courts, but there is also a bottom line: Get the case decided and move on. The legal system is the lifeblood of solving problems. Indiana annual case filings have reached 2 million, up 33 percent over the last 10 years. Despite increasing caseloads and dwindling resources, Indiana state judges are continuing to meet their obligations year in and year out.

So when legislative gridlock raises it ugly head, why not treat it like any other unsettled legal dispute? Why not let the courts solve it? Just consider:

* We have a proven track record of deciding issues on merits, not politics.

* We are trained in dispute resolution.

* We're on the job all year round.

* There are no vetoes.

* We cannot accept any money, meals, or tickets from anybody for any reason.

* We will not hold press conferences.

* We will not take polls on the issues.
 

Hon. David J. Dreyer has been a judge for the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School. He is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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