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No vote yet on St. Joe judges bill

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An Indiana Senate committee debated this morning a bill that would make it so St. Joseph Superior judges are elected rather than chosen by merit selection and later retained by voters.

But after two hours of debate and only one of four proposed amendments offered up for discussion, committee chair Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, withdrew House Bill 1491 from the table and opted to postpone it for future discussion at its next meeting in a week.

Authored by Rep. Craig Fry, R-Mishawaka, the bill sets up non-partisan elections every six years. While not in the original bill, the amended version passed by the House in February also restricts and caps campaign contributions of any judicial candidate; it prohibits a Superior judge candidate from receiving any money from a political party or political action committee, and bans them from getting more than $500 from one person, $1,000 from any two or more people from a single law firm, or more than $10,000 in total contributions.

Fry didn't attend the hearing, and Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend, spoke to the committee in his place supporting the bill. He told committee members that "an overwhelming number" of residents want the change so they can be treated equitably because 90 Indiana counties use elections to choose judges, and that elections would provide more accountability.

Leo Blackwell with the Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police testified in favor of the bill and said he'd heard from members that the local police and prosecutor have led this effort because they feel St. Joseph judges' sentences are inconsistent. He told a committee member that sentencing should be done on a case-by-case basis, but that judges also need to listen to the will of people in making these decisions.

Several committee members voiced support generally for wanting judges to be chosen by voters rather than by appointment following the merit selection process. Lawmakers tiptoed around the issues of home rule and also of favoring one type of selection method over another, fearing that it could be read the wrong way that the legislator doesn't support elected or merit judges.

Several groups spoke in opposition to this bill, including the St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce, local League of Women Voters affiliate, Indiana and St. Joseph County bar associations, and the local judiciary.

"It's not broken for us," said ISBA president Bill Jonas, who's been practicing law in St. Joseph County since 1981. "Judges are umpires who have to be able to call balls and strikes based on whether the pitch is over the plate .... Without regard to who the batter or pitcher is, or the opposing managers are."

After discussing HB 1491 for more than an hour, Bray noted that four amendments were being proposed and began reading the first. That proposal essentially took the form of Lake County-focused legislation that had died in committee earlier this year; that bill by Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, proposed changing the northwest county's current system using both election and merit selection so that all Lake Superior judges are merit selected and retained. All the county's Superior judges are merit selected, except for four county division Superior judges who voters must elect.

That amendment sparked a new debate of its own, with committee members, fellow legislators, and bar associations urging the Judiciary Committee to not confuse the two counties' issues into one piece of legislation. The other three proposed amendments were not detailed during the public meeting and aren't yet accessible.

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