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Lawmakers mull veto override on merit selection

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Vetoed legislation that would scrap St. Joseph County's merit selection for judicial elections and also add a new three-judge panel to the Indiana Court of Appeals is back in play.

The Indiana General Assembly during its final week revived House Enrolled Act 1491, which was passed by both chambers during the 2009 session but later received a veto from Gov. Mitch Daniels. Introduced by Rep Craig Fry, D-Mishawaka, the act would have replaced merit selection with nonpartisan elections in the St. Joseph Superior Courts, one of two systems statewide that currently use that selection method. It would also have created a sixth appellate panel starting in 2011.

Last year, the governor wrote a veto message supporting merit selection and refusing to interfere with that process that's been in place for more than three decades in St. Joseph County.

"It is a model to be emulated, not discarded. It is not broken; it requires no repair. It has produced outstanding jurists and contains sufficient measures of public accountability. I believe it neither necessary nor wise to re-politicize the courts of St. Joseph County," he wrote.

He also wrote that it would be tough to justify the $2 million yearly cost for a new appellate panel, given the current fiscal challenges, but that the proposal should be considered on the merits on its own - not attached to the merit-selection change.

"Moreover, if I were to sign a bill linking these two proposals, it could contribute to public cynicism by creating the appearance that my acquiescence was purchased with more appointments. Whatever the merits of expanding the Court of Appeals may be, they should be considered alone."

The House put the measure on the calendar for Wednesday but it didn't get any action before representatives adjourned until Thursday afternoon - nothing had happened by IL deadline. A simple majority from both the House and Senate is needed for a veto override. Legislative staff and the Indiana State Bar Association expected it would get more attention before the session ends March 14.

ISBA legislative counsel Paje Felts said she wasn't surprised by the quiet reintroduction of the act during the final days of the session, but that she and others in the legal community had hoped it wouldn't be brought back for consideration.

ISBA, Indianapolis Bar Association, and St. Joseph County Bar Association were among the organizations to come out strongly against changing the selection system in St. Joe, fearing that a shift there would lead to a change in Lake County where merit selection and retention are also used. The topic is controversial at every level, and late last year the Judicial Conference of Indiana proposed adopting a statewide merit-selection system. That move hasn't gotten support from the Indiana Judges Association, which says there isn't enough consensus statewide and in the largest areas like Marion County on how to move toward a unified judicial selection system for Indiana.

In South Bend, attorney and former ISBA president Bill Jonas said he was disappointed in how this legislation was brought back.

"I find it discouraging and more than a little cynical that this would surface at the end of the session when it could be hidden or lost in the shuffle of end-of-term business," he wrote in an e-mail. "It's even harder to believe when analysts say that the new appellate court panel is unnecessary, and that it would cost more than $2 million annually. It doesn't make sense to me to be spending that kind of money when we're laying off teachers and slashing funding for higher education."

Check http://www.theindianalawyer.com for updates on this story.

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