Marion County judicial-selection bill headed for conference committee

A bill that would establish a merit-based judicial selection system for Marion Superior judges is entering its final phases of negotiation after it cleared the Indiana Senate on Tuesday.

Despite vocal criticism from opponents such as Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, House Bill 1036 moved out of the Senate with a 33-15 vote. If passed, the bill, authored by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, would establish a 14-person nominating commission, which would vet candidates for judicial vacancies and recommend three names to the governor for appointment.

Of the 14 panel members, four will be elected from the “four corners of Marion County,” a change made to the bill late last month in an effort to give Marion County voters a voice in the selection process, said Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, who sponsored HB 1036 in the Senate. In addition to keeping voters involved, Merritt told senators that the judicial-selection process laid out in HB 1036 promotes diversity on the lower courts by selecting diverse, qualified and talented judicial candidates.

But Taylor went to great lengths to debunk that idea, noting that right now, a merit-based judicial-selection system is used in Lake, Allen and St. Joseph counties, areas of the state that, along with Marion County, make up the largest portions of the Hoosier minority population. Thus, the merit-based system could disenfranchise minority voters, Taylor said, and could further face constitutional challenges in court. To that end, Taylor said a legal decision would affect not only Marion County, but every other Indiana county where merit-based selection exists.

Debate about HB 1036 lasted for about 30 minutes, with Sen. Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, telling the Senate that the General Assembly has to fix Marion County’s judicial selection process this year in order to avoid violating a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which struck down the former “slating” system, during next year’s elections.

Now that an amended version of HB 1036 has passed through the Senate, it will be sent to a conference committee for final deliberations.

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