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Senate gets St. Joe judges bill, with twist

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The full Indiana Senate will consider in the next week whether St. Joseph Superior judges should be elected or merit-selected and retained by voters. A Senate committee wants the full legislative body to consider that issue, but with a twist: An amendment has been attached to the controversial House Bill 1491.

The legislation now addresses the selection issue, but also calls for creating a new, sixth panel for the Indiana Court of Appeals. That topic had been addressed by other legislation that has been passed by the Senate but hasn't received a House committee hearing, and will likely die in the coming week. Now, it has new life and would implement the new three-judge panel in 2011.

The Senate Judiciary Committee considered HB 1491 this morning and, after a 30-minute debate, voted 6-5 in favor of the legislation with the one appellate court amendment. The committee voted 7-4 to add that amendment. Three other amendments proposed during last week's committee meeting were withdrawn, including the one that would have made all Lake Superior judges be merit-selected rather than the hybrid merit/election system currently in place. This means the legislation now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

"We are sad about this vote and just feel so incredibly strong that this isn't right," said St. Joseph County Bar Association President Carl Greci, who opposes the bill along with colleagues and the Indiana State Bar Association. "We've been blessed for 35 years to have merit selection, and believe it's the best method to use for selecting judges."

Today, six senators voted in favor of it and five voted against it. All but two of the legislators supporting the change are attorneys. Voting against the bill were Sens. John Broden, D-South Bend; Tim Lanane, D-Anderson; Teresa Lubbers, R-Indianapolis; Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago; and Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis.
In opposing the legislation, Taylor pointed out he was specifically against the Court of Appeals amendment being attached because he didn't feel the two were related and should be dealt with separately.

Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, the committee chairman who also chairs the summer interim Commission on Courts that had opposed the measure, cast the deciding vote. He hesitated and weighed the split before making his decision, then grimaced as he voted yes to pass it to the full Senate. After adjournment, the senator pointed to his opposition in the Commission on Courts but said he wanted all his colleagues in the Senate to have a chance to weigh the important issue and vote for or against it.

Broden, who is also a South Bend attorney, explained his vote.

"In my support of merit selection, I'm in no way suggesting any inferiority of elected judges. I support it on a fundamental belief in a free and independent judiciary," he said. "It's bodies like us who voice the will of the populous. We stand for elections and we hear the passions of the people and represent them. The judiciary is meant to be a check on that. People's passions aren't always looking out for the rights of other people, and courts must do that."

Explaining his vote in favor of the bill, Sen. Joseph C. Zakas, R-Granger, said it's obvious that the merit-selection method just hasn't caught on for trial courts since being implemented in Lake and St. Joseph counties more than three decades ago. People in those two counties have the most at stake and should be able to decide how to choose their judges.

Indiana State Bar Association President Bill Jonas, a St. Joseph County attorney, had spoken at the meeting and also was disappointed in the committee vote. The ISBA will continue advocating for merit selection, and he said a long-term effort for statewide merit selection might have to take more priority given this legislation's quick path through the legislature.

The Senate will likely take the bill up in the coming days, with a time for amendments possible before the third reading deadline on April 15. Since the bill has now been amended in committee, it would have to go back through the House voting process if approved by the Senate. If no agreement can be reached on the amended version, then a conference committee would have to negotiate before the April 29 legislative deadline for this session.

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