Merit selection, with recommendations for voters, proposed for Indy bench

January 4, 2017

A bill in the Indiana General Assembly would establish merit selection for Marion Superior judges, but Indianapolis’ version would also include recommendations from the judicial selection committee on whether voters should retain judges.

The proposal would give lawmakers and local party bosses unprecedented say about who nominates judges, while lawyers would have far less input than in merit-selection systems in three of Indiana’s largest counties.

Those are features of Senate Bill 79 introduced by Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis. Lawmakers this session must replace Indianapolis’ pay-to-play slating system that was struck down by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 because the next judicial election is 2018 and no system for selecting judges is in place.

The 36 Marion Superior judges had been elected under a statute that equally divided judgeships between Democrats and Republicans. The invalidated election law facilitated a system whereby both parties “slated” ballot positions with judge candidates who made five-figure financial contributions to their respective parties. Each party filled their ballots after primary elections with the exact number of judges to be elected. The 7th Circuit ruled this system didn’t provide voters a meaningful vote in the general election.

Nevertheless, the proposed statute would retain the equal distribution of judgeships between parties. “In no event may more than 52 percent of the judges serving on the Marion superior court be members of the same political party,” the bill says. Such a provision would guarantee no more than 18 of the 36 judges are Democrats or Republicans.

Judges are appointed through merit selection in Allen, Lake and Saint Joseph counties, each of which has its own judicial nominating commission. Those commissions vet candidates for judicial vacancies and recommend nominees, from which the governor appoints a judge. Judges in those counties subsequently stand for retention votes.

Merritt’s bill would create a Marion County Judicial Selection Committee that would similarly recommend candidates for a governor’s selection. The legislation, however, would grant the Marion County body a duty that isn’t given to the panels in Allen, Lake or St. Joseph counties — “make recommendations to the voters concerning the retention of a judge on the court.”

The composition of the proposed committee for Marion County also differs from those in Allen, St. Joe and Lake counties. Allen and St. Joseph have panels of three lawyers and three non-lawyers chaired by a Supreme Court justice or a judge of the Court of Appeals. Lake has a nine-member panel with four lawyers and four non-lawyers chaired by a justice or COA judge. Members of the bar in these counties elect the lawyer members of the commissions.

Bar members in Indianapolis would elect no committee members under the introduced legislation.

The proposal for Marion County would establish a 14-member committee beginning July 1, four of whom would be appointed by General Assembly leaders from both parties, and two each appointed by the Marion County Democratic and Republican party chairs. The president of the Indianapolis Bar Association would appoint just one attorney member. Presidents or other bar groups — the Marion County Bar Association, Indiana Trial Lawyers Association and Defense Trial Council of Indiana — also would appoint one member each to the committee.

Membership would be rounded out by a Supreme Court justice and a member of the Court of Appeals.   

The bill was assigned Tuesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which as of Wednesday had posted no scheduled meetings.


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