Marion County judicial selection bill clears House

The Indiana House Thursday passed a bill creating a unique judicial-selection commission that gives lawmakers and Marion County political party leaders a majority of seats at the table. The bill has been heavily criticized by Indianapolis’ minority lawmakers and others.

“As home to the state capital, Marion County’s courts are unique in that they have certain jurisdiction in cases that come from all over Indiana,” bill author Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, said in a statement after passage of House Bill 1036. “The commission created through this legislation would help ensure a diverse, qualified bench while limiting the influence of either political party. Aiming for a judiciary that represents the makeup of Marion County while also balancing the distinct responsibilities of these courts is a key goal of this bipartisan bill.”

The bill passed the House by a vote of 68-29. Bill co-sponsor Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, was the only House Democrat voting for the legislation. One Republican voted against the bill. Opponents argued the bill would limit diversity on the bench and disenfranchise Marion County voters.

The Legislature must come up with a new means of selecting Marion County judges after the former system was voided by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held the former “slating” system deprived residents of a meaningful vote.

Like the system struck down by the 7th Circuit, the proposed system ensures that judgeships in Marion County will be evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans — another feature of the law that would be unique among Indiana’s merit selection systems.

Democratic lawmakers and African-American community leaders staunchly criticized the bill. The bill proposes creation of a 14-member merit-selection commission: Four appointed by Indiana House and Senate leaders from both parties; two each appointed by Marion County Democratic and Republican party chairs; one each appointed by the Indianapolis Bar Association, Marion County Bar Association, Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana and the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association; one judge of the Indiana Court of Appeals and one Indiana Supreme Court justice. The panel would vet candidates for judicial vacancies and recommend three to the governor for appointment.

Opponents who testified against the bill in a House committee last week raised equal protection arguments, among others. They noted that Indianapolis would join Lake, Allen and St. Joseph counties as those with high minority populations that are also the only Indiana jurisdictions where judges aren’t directly elected.

“It is a disenfranchisement of Marion County voters,” said Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis. While the proposed system would give voters the option of retaining judges or not, she said, “A retention vote is not a vote. … We don’t get first crack at who will represent us.”

Current judges’ terms also would be extended to facilitate the new system, in which judges’ names would appear on ballots for retention votes. Steuerwald said the current 36 Marion County judges would be split into three retention classes, based on judicial seniority. The first class of 12 judges would be up for retention elections on the 2020 ballot; the second class on the 2022 ballot; and the final class on the 2024 ballot. After their election, each retained judge would serve a six-year term.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where it is sponsored by Indianapolis Sens. Jim Merritt, who proposed a companion bill, Senate Bill 79, and Michael Young. Young also offered a similar bill, SB 568. Neither Senate bill has received a hearing after being assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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