Legislators discuss need for ‘people’s voice’ in selecting Marion Superior judges

Indiana Legislators raised several concerns Monday afternoon during the conference committee for House Bill 1036, which establishes merit selection for choosing Marion Superior judges. Several expressed the need to allow the general public to have a say through elections.

Republican Sen. Mike Young of Indianapolis said there needs to be a consideration for Marion County residents to have some voice in who their judges are, whatever form that takes. The current form of the bill lets residents from four geographical districts in Marion County elect one representative from their district to sit on the Marion County Judicial Selection Committee. The committee would vet candidates and recommend names to the governor for appointment to the bench. Judges on the bench would then be up for retention vote.

Four of the other committee members would be appointed by Indiana House and Senate leaders from both parties; two each would be appointed by Marion County Democratic and Republican party chairs; and one judge of the Indiana Court of Appeals and one Indiana Supreme Court justice would sit on it.

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, argued every Hoosier deserves an opportunity to elect their officials and said accountability comes through the election box. He called out Rep. Greg Steuerwald, who authored the bill, saying the Avon Republican only accepted views from the majority party in crafting the bill. Taylor and other members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus have argued that this bill won’t ensure diversity on the bench.  

He pointed out that bills have been introduced in recent years to change the selection of judges in Lake and St. Joseph Counties from merit-selection to elections. Those bills did not pass.

Taylor also said this bill “smells of conflict” in that the governor will have a say in who the Marion Superior judges are and that Marion County has jurisdiction over legal issues involving the government and the governor. He suggested residents elect nine judges from each of the four districts outlined in the bill as a way to achieve diversity on the bench.

Rep. Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, comes from St. Joseph County, which uses merit selection to pick its judges. He noted the process is a little different in his county as compared to HB 1036 and questioned why under the Marion County bill, the political party chairpersons get to appoint people to serve on the selection committee.

He also questioned why all counties don’t switch to merit selection if it’s such a great process.

Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, and Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, also expressed concerns about taking away the people’s right to vote for their judges.

Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, pointed out questions have been raised by the American Civil Liberties Union about the bill and that “we don’t want to pass something that will automatically result in a lawsuit and stress the system further.”

At the end of the meeting, Steuerwald said he plans to work with the co-authors and sponsors and come up with a report for consideration. The session is scheduled to end next week, but legislators have said they'd like to wrap up this week.

The Legislature needs to pass a bill reforming how Marion Superior judges are selected after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the current system in September 2015 as unconstitutional.

For the last 40 years, Marion Superior judges pay a slating fee to be on the primary, and an equal number of Republicans and Democrats are elected through the primary to face a vote in the general election. Because the number of names placed on the general ballot is equal to the number of spots on the bench up for grabs, if a candidate makes it out of the primary, he or she is basically guaranteed to be elected in November.

Archived video of the conference committee is available here.

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