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UPDATE: Committee tweaking St. Joe judges bill

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Updated at 4:30 p.m.
A legislative conference committee is debating what changes might be possible for a bill aimed at scrapping merit selection for St. Joseph Superior judges. Discussions today focused on keeping judicial elections non-partisan, delaying the creation of a new appellate panel by six months, possibly removing a part about political contribution restrictions, and adding language to allow city or town courts to use interlocal agreements for ordinance violations.

The conference committee met at 3:30 p.m. in the Indiana Statehouse to discuss House Bill 1491, which was authored by Rep. Craig Fry, R-Mishawaka, and has gotten support from both sides of the legislature this session.

While a meeting Wednesday included discussion of possibly setting up partisan elections rather than non-partisan contests as originally intended, that didn't come up today. Fry assured committee members that the elections would be similar to school board contests and the top two primary candidates would be put on the general election ballot in November.

Another issue was the Senate amendment that would create a sixth Court of Appeals panel starting in 2011 - an item not in the original House bill. The Senate-approved bill calls for that panel to begin Jan. 1, 2011, but lawmakers are now discussing pushing that to July 1, 2011 so it won't impact this current two-year budget. House Speaker Rep. Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, wants that change, Fry said.

Also, Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, worried about the bill's provision capping and restricting campaign contributions for any judicial candidates. He said legislators are prohibited from capping contributions for individuals, and he's worried that language capping money from "all sources" at $10,000 might not clearly consider that and might favor independently wealthy judicial candidates. Koch suggested taking that part out all together.

The committee also proposed adding the court interlocal agreement language from House Bill 1703, which had passed the House but didn't make it to a Senate vote.

No decisions were made today. The conference committee plans to circulate copies of its draft report this week so legislators can discuss them with their party leadership before coming together early next week to sign that report. The General Assembly faces an April 29 deadline to pass legislation and forward it to Gov. Mitch Daniels for consideration.

Original post:

St. Joseph Superior judges would be chosen by voters in partisan elections rather than non-partisan contests under a change discussed by a legislative conference committee Wednesday. More amendments for House Bill 1491 could be debated or voted on today, during a 3:30 p.m. public conference committee meeting at the Indiana Statehouse.

Aimed at ending the merit-selection and retention system that's been in place in St. Joseph County since 1973, HB 1491 is on the verge of passage by lawmakers in the final week of the legislative session. Rep. Craig Fry, R-Mishawaka, is the original author and was joined by Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, as a sponsor in the Senate. The Senate voted 35-15 in favor of it last week, and the House had overwhelmingly supported it in February.

But because the bill's been amended to also create a new three-judge panel for the Indiana Court of Appeals, it's now being hammered out in conference committee after the House dissented from that part of the bill earlier this week. The House has named two conferees: Fry and Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Elkhart, who attached an amendment in February restricting and capping campaign contributions for judicial candidates. Senate conferees named Wednesday are Charbonneau and Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte. House advisors are Reps. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington; Charlie Brown, D-Gary; Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville; and Eric Koch, R-Bedford. Senate advisors are Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, and Tim Lenane, D-Anderson.

The first and what was initially expected to be the only public conference committee meeting was Wednesday, a day when many opponents of the legislation were attending a St. Joseph County Bar Association event in South Bend where retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spoke in favor of merit selection. More than 500 people, mostly attorneys and judges, attended the lunchtime event.

This morning a second hearing was scheduled, according to Indiana State Bar Association President Bill Jonas, a South Bend attorney who is closely monitoring the legislation. He said that second hearing isn't required, and he didn't know if it was added because of the conflict with Wednesday's event. An amendment discussed Wednesday would change the nature of the judicial elections, according to ISBA legislative counsel Page Felts, who attended the hearing. The original bill would have established non-partisan elections, a system that Allen and Vanderburgh counties currently use. The remaining 88 Hoosier counties use partisan elections.

Felts said that during the hearing, Lake County's representative Brown echoed his previous comments about wanting a consistent system for the entire state. Nothing was attached involving Lake County at this point, she said. Brown has already publicly stated that he plans to introduce legislation in the next session to scrap merit selection in Lake County. If a compromise is reached before the April 29 deadline, the legislation could be forwarded to the governor for review. Gov. Mitch Daniels, an attorney himself who has been a proponent of Indiana's merit-selection system, would have the final decision to approve or veto the bill if it reaches his desk. His office has declined to comment on this legislation during the session.

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