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. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.