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Judge: Suit challenging Marion County judicial slating may proceed

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A federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state law that has given rise to the Democratic and Republican slating system under which Marion Superior judges are elected will go forward.

Chief Judge Richard Young of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana last week denied a motion to dismiss brought by state officials and interests named in a suit brought by Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.

Common Cause, a nonpartisan group whose mission is to promote open, honest government and voting rights, seeks an injunction against enforcement of Indiana Code 33-33-49-13. The suit says that law, which sets forth the process for electing judges in the Marion Superior Courts, is “unique in Indiana, and perhaps in the nation.”

“Common Cause has Article III and prudential standing to bring its claim; the Defendants are not immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment; and Common Cause states a plausible claim for relief,” Young wrote in the Sept. 6 order.

No further proceedings had been scheduled as of Friday, and a spokesman for Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller declined to comment.

Slating of Marion Superior judge races has drawn criticism because each candidate who earned the party’s endorsement on the primary ballot paid identical amounts to the county party before his or her party’s slating convention prior to the primary. For Democrats, the contribution was $13,100; for Republicans, it was $12,000, according to a review of campaign contributions last year by Indiana Lawyer.  

The statute all but guarantees an equal split of Marion Superior judgeships for Democratic and Republican candidates. For the current 20 judgeships, each party may nominate 10 candidates for the general election, and voters may select 10 from each party. Unslated candidates rarely win, and Young noted that while candidates may run as independents or as third-party candidates, no one has since 2002.

Young’s ruling rejected state arguments to remove parties to the case and that the complaint was of a type more appropriately addressed in the Legislature. In rejecting the state’s argument on standing, he wrote, “Instead, Common Cause brings a constitutional challenge involving its members’ and other Marion County voters’ First Amendment right to cast a meaningful vote for Marion Superior Court judge.”

The state’s argument on failure to state a claim also was unpersuasive. “Although Indiana’s ballot access statute … has been found constitutionally adequate … the court is not convinced that the statute’s constitutionality with respect to a candidate’s access to the ballot applies here with equal force, where the claim is not ballot access, but whether a citizen’s vote in the general election matters.”
 

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