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Merit-selection override a possibility

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The state's top executive has rejected the idea of scrapping merit selection in St. Joseph County, but it remains unclear whether lawmakers will attempt to override that veto during a special session.

On the final day he had to take action, Gov. Mitch Daniels used his veto power for the third time this session and rejected House Enrolled Act 1491, which called for non-partisan elections to choose the county's eight Superior judges for six-year terms. It also called for the creation of a sixth Court of Appeals district and panel starting in July 2011.

In his veto message, Daniels wrote: "The current method of selecting judges for the St. Joseph Superior Court has prevailed successfully for 35 years. 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."

On the appellate panel aspect, the governor wrote, "The addition of another panel to the Court of Appeals at $2 million per year is difficult to justify in today's challenging fiscal environment. 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."

While the legislation's author, Rep. Craig Fry, D-Mishawaka, didn't return telephone messages from Indiana Lawyer after the governor's veto, he told the South Bend Tribune that a veto override is still possible if Senate Republicans are willing to take that step.

A simple majority of both houses, which means 51 in the House and 26 in the Senate - is needed to override the veto. Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, could not be reached late Wednesday or Thursday morning to comment on the veto or possibility of an override.

But if the General Assembly's action earlier in the session on this legislation is a sign, there could be enough support - the House voted 88-3 on the bill aimed at St. Joseph County's judicial selection, and the Senate voted 35-15 to pass an amended version adding the appellate court component.

St. Joseph judges were pleased with the governor's decision, saying Daniels correctly articulated the system as one that works and should remain in place. Even those judges who are currently elected agreed.

"This wouldn't have affected me, but directly impacts my (Superior Court) colleagues," Circuit Judge Michael Gotsch said this morning. "The governor hit it right on the head, saying it should be emulated."

Despite being elected, Judge Gotsch said he prefers merit selection because it offers a choice; he ran unopposed in a judicial campaign, as did the county's other elected jurist, Probate Judge Peter Nemeth.

"If someone wants to run a campaign against a sitting Superior judge and raise questions about their record, let's do that. But no one has ever done that," he said. "How do we know if it works it if it hasn't been tested? It made no sense to throw the whole system out without testing it first."

Indiana State Bar Association president Bill Jonas, a South Bend attorney, was pleased with the veto decision and the language Daniels used in the message.

"What I appreciated the most was that it showed real statesmanship, and his willingness to rise above partisan politics and do what's right as an elected official," Jonas said. "We had met with the governor's legal staff and they indicated his strong commitment to judicial independence and fiscal responsibility. We hoped that would carry through, and it's obvious that it has."

Jonas realizes the battle isn't finished and will be watching closely for any possible veto override action. The state bar association plans to increase its efforts in the coming months to educate the public and legal community about the merit-selection and retention system, an effort that will heavily involve civic education, he said. The ISBA is working with the Indiana Judges Association on this effort to expand the merit-selection and retention system to other parts of the state, he said.

"We have a third branch of government that's independent, and 1491 was an effort to go a little farther than the legislature should in getting involved in the judiciary," Jonas said. "When you talk about this issue with people, who can't name all three branches of government, it's a real challenge to get through, and is indicative of the challenges we face."
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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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