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Marion County Bar Association opposes judicial selection bill

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Lawmakers are working to craft an 11th-hour agreement on how judges should be chosen in Marion County after they were unable to reach a compromise Monday. Meanwhile, Indianapolis’ historically black bar association called for direct election of judges instead of a proposed merit-selection system.

“Approximately two-thirds of the state’s minority residents reside in either Lake County or Marion County, and it is troubling that Senate Bill 352 would result in these two counties being among the only ones in the state where citizens have no voice in the judicial selection process,” MCBA President Roxana Bell said in a statement. The association urged lawmakers “to propose language that will conform with the principles expressed in the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in Common Cause Indiana v. Individual Members of the Indiana Election Commission, 800 F.3d 913, 916 (7th Cir. 2015).”

The MCBA joins prior opposition to the proposal by members of Indiana Black Legislative Caucus.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law for electing Marion Superior judges unconstitutional because it deprived residents of a meaningful vote. The former slating system equally divvied judgeships between Democrats and Republicans chosen during primary elections.  

A conference committee recessed Monday after failing to reconcile Senate and House versions of the bill.

Bell said the MCBA disfavors merit selection, noting the 7th Circuit ruled the former partisan-balance statute reduced electoral choice. “To respond to that by passing a bill that eliminates electoral choice altogether is not a logical response to the Common Cause decision,” she said in an interview.

Some proponents of merit selection for Indianapolis judges have said the system works better in larger counties where voters may not be as familiar with candidates compared with smaller counties where voters are likelier to know the candidates. Bell disagreed.

“I take exception to the suggestion that somehow Marion County residents are incompetent or unable to select judges as residents of other counties do,” she said. “It’s odd logic, to me, to look to the appellate system for guidance,” because candidates for trial court judges are likelier to be involved in their local communities.

“We are confident that our legislators will propose a bill that is fair and equitable to the people of Marion County and that ensures that our justice system is reflective of the diversity Marion County residents are proud to proclaim,” the MCBA statement said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, no further meetings had been called for conferees on the bill. Lake and St. Joseph counties use merit selection to choose judges; in Allen County, vacancies created before terms are over in the Superior Court are filled by merit-selection. Judges initially join the Superior bench in Allen County through nonpartisan elections.

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