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Senate OKs COA panel, St. Joe judge elections

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 The full Senate voted today in support of legislation scrapping the St. Joseph Superior judge merit-selection system for judicial elections, and also creating a new panel for the Indiana Court of Appeals.

A 35-15 vote came after a 40-minute Senate floor debate starting just after noon, bringing up heated discussion for and against House Bill 1491. But the discussion ended on a note that now sends the amended bill back to its originating legislative body for consideration.

Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, introduced the legislation as a "very simple and straightforward" bill calling for both judicial accountability and a "need that's been recognized for a long time." The bill authored by Rep. Craig Fry, R-Mishawaka, sets up non-partisan elections every six years for the county's eight Superior judges who are currently chosen by a merit-selection process and later retained by voters. The bill also restricts and caps campaign contributions of any judicial candidate, and last week it was amended to establish a new appellate panel starting in 2011.

A divided Senate Judiciary Committee voted on April 8 to amend the bill, then voted 6-5 to send the legislation to the full Senate. The bill got approval earlier this week and was set for final vote Tuesday, but got pushed back to today because of the heavy legislative calendar.

Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Judge John Baker met briefly with senators on Tuesday, sharing that the appellate court's statistics show the number of cases the court handles is down so far this year. He said the new COA panel being tied to legislation that would end merit-selection in St. Joseph County is a concern, and that the Indiana Judges Association supports the current method used there. He also said it's up to the lawmakers to decide whether it should happen.

Some senators questioned the intent of lumping both issues together, saying it isn't consistent to advocate on one page that judges be elected and on another that the state pay for three new judges to be merit-chosen and retained. Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-Gary, a judiciary committee member who'd opposed the bill previously, said he is troubled by the two issues being combined, particularly at this time.

"We're trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist," Randolph said of an additional Court of Appeals panel. "At a time when we have a budget crisis, poor economy, and we're trying to find money, here we want to spend (millions) on this court. We've got to be practical."

Leading the opposition specifically on the merit-selection issue was Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, who supports the merit-selection system currently in place in St. Joseph and Lake counties since 1973. The remaining 90 counties use partisan or non-partisan elections.

"I'm not condemning the many other elected judges statewide or in St. Joseph County," he said, citing landmark cases going back decades and wondering how they would have ended up if those judges faced elections. "My opposition is not based on any notion that there would be a 'For Sale' sign out on the St. Joseph Courthouse, but on my fundamental belief that this system has served St. Joe well."

But others disagreed on how to reach that goal, even those whose names appear on the Roll of Attorneys. Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, who practices in his southern Indiana community, voted in favor of the bill and said he wanted the decision-making power to be with voters, not a merit-selection committee and ultimately the person doing the appointing. The senator said he conducted a survey on this issue in his five counties, and received a 92 percent response in favor of elections versus appointments.

Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville - who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee and also chairs the summer interim Commission on Courts that had opposed this measure - voted in favor of the bill.

Bray, who authored the COA panel amendment and cast the deciding committee vote last week, said the reason this amendment was attached was because it achieved the long-running goal for a new panel but pushed the creation back from 2010 to 2011 because of fiscal reasons. It's estimated to cost about $1.3 million in the first year and $2.2 million in the following years. Only about $3,750 would be used during this next two-year cycle, he said.

Since HB 1491 has been amended from its original form passed by the House in February, it now goes back through that voting process. 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. The governor also retains veto power on any piece of legislation, but so far he hasn't publicly offered any input on this issue.

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  1. Looks like 2017 will be another notable year for these cases. I have a Grandson involved in a CHINS case that should never have been. He and the whole family are being held hostage by CPS and the 'current mood' of the CPS caseworker. If the parents disagree with a decision, they are penalized. I, along with other were posting on Jasper County Online News, but all were quickly warned to remove posts. I totally understand that some children need these services, but in this case, it was mistakes, covered by coorcement of father to sign papers, lies and cover-ups. The most astonishing thing was within 2 weeks of this child being placed with CPS, a private adoption agency was asking questions regarding child's family in the area. I believe a photo that was taken by CPS manager at the very onset during the CHINS co-ocerment and the intent was to make money. I have even been warned not to post or speak to anyone regarding this case. Parents have completed all requirements, met foster parents, get visitation 2 days a week, and still the next court date is all the way out till May 1, which gives them(CPS) plenty of to time make further demands (which I expect) No trust of these 'seasoned' case managers, as I have already learned too much about their dirty little tricks. If they discover that I have posted here, I expect they will not be happy and penalized parents again. Still a Hostage.

  2. They say it was a court error, however they fail to mention A.R. was on the run from the law and was hiding. Thus why she didn't receive anything from her public defender. Step mom is filing again for adoption of the two boys she has raised. A.R. is a criminal with a serious heroin addiction. She filed this appeal MORE than 30 days after the final decision was made from prison. Report all the facts not just some.

  3. Hysteria? Really Ben? Tell the young lady reported on in the link below that worrying about the sexualizing of our children is mere hysteria. Such thinking is common in the Royal Order of Jesters and other running sex vacays in Thailand or Brazil ... like Indy's Jared Fogle. Those tempted to call such concerns mere histronics need to think on this: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-12-year-old-girl-live-streamed-her-suicide-it-took-two-weeks-for-facebook-to-take-the-video-down/ar-AAlT8ka?li=AA4ZnC&ocid=spartanntp

  4. This is happening so much. Even in 2016.2017. I hope the father sue for civil rights violation. I hope he sue as more are doing and even without a lawyer as pro-se, he got a good one here. God bless him.

  5. I whole-heartedly agree with Doug Church's comment, above. Indiana lawyers were especially fortunate to benefit from Tom Pyrz' leadership and foresight at a time when there has been unprecedented change in the legal profession. Consider how dramatically computer technology and its role in the practice of law have changed over the last 25 years. The impact of the great recession of 2008 dramatically changed the composition and structure of law firms across the country. Economic pressures altered what had long been a routine, robust annual recruitment process for law students and recent law school graduates. That has, in turn, impacted law school enrollment across the country, placing upward pressure on law school tuition. The internet continues to drive significant changes in the provision of legal services in both public and private sectors. The ISBA has worked to make quality legal representation accessible and affordable for all who need it and to raise general public understanding of Indiana laws and procedures. How difficult it would have been to tackle each of these issues without Tom's leadership. Tom has set the tone for positive change at the ISBA to meet the evolving practice needs of lawyers of all backgrounds and ages. He has led the organization with vision, patience, flexibility, commitment, thoughtfulness & even humor. He will, indeed, be a tough act to follow. Thank you, Tom, for all you've done and all the energy you've invested in making the ISBA an excellent, progressive, highly responsive, all-inclusive, respectful & respected professional association during his tenure there.

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