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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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