Lake, St. Joseph judicial selection bill set for hearing Wednesday

Legislation that has drawn fire from bar associations and members of the legal community who say proposed changes to judicial appointments would politicize the trial court benches in Lake and St. Joseph counties will be heard Wednesday by a Senate committee.

House Bill 1453 will be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee after the controversial proposal passed the House last month by a 63-31 vote. The bill would change the composition of the Lake and St. Joseph judicial nominating commissions, removing requirements for attorney representation on the panels and allowing the governor to appoint a majority of commission members, among other things.

The legislation was criticized by lawyers and lawmakers from the northern Indiana counties before it advanced from the House Judiciary Committee in February on a 6-4 party-line vote.

Subsequently, the Indiana State Bar Association formally opposed the legislation. So did the Lake County Bar Association, which condemned the bill as “an abomination” and a “political power play by parties not even within Lake County to take even more power away from the people of Lake County in selecting their judges.”

Lake Circuit Judge Marissa McDermott also has spoken out against the legislation, writing in an Indiana Lawyer commentary that the legislation raised questions more broadly about why judicial merit selection applies only in Indiana’s most populous and diverse counties.

“The undeniable truth is that there is a long legislative history in this nation of powerful majorities diminishing and silencing the voices of minorities,” McDermott wrote of HB 1453. “While I have no reason to believe the motive of the current legislation is racial, this law will undoubtedly have a disproportionally negative effect on citizens who happen to be racial minorities. Or, to use the legal term of art: ‘disparate impact.’”

HB 1453 was not the only legislative proposal to shake up judicial merit selection in Indiana that prompted outcry from bar groups and the legal community. Lawmakers also introduced Senate Joint Resolution 16, which would have allowed for far more involvement from the General Assembly and the governor in choosing Supreme Court justices and judges of the Indiana Court of Appeals while doing away with statewide judicial retention ballots in favor of legislative retention votes.

The ISBA and others criticized the proposal they said would “politicize” the state appellate bench. SJR 16 went unheard in the Senate.

The Indiana Senate Judiciary Committee meeting starts at 1:30 p.m. ET Wednesday and may be viewed online here.

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