Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Can't We Find A Better Way To Select Judges In Marion County?

The Indianapolis Bar Association, of which I am a member, in an effort to have “the strongest judiciary possible” in Marion County has established a Judicial Excellence Political Action Committee (“JEPAC) “to educate voters on the qualifications of candidates for judicial office.” JEPAC conducted an online survey of attorneys to “help voters in assessing the strengths of the candidates on the upcoming primary ballots.” As noble as JEPAC’s intentions may have been, the survey results, while quite revealing, will have little impact on the outcome of the judicial races in Marion County. That’s because there are no real judicial races so to speak.

This year, Marion County voters will select judges to fill 20, county-wide judicial offices in Marion County, three of which are newly created positions. Under state law, however, each party will nominate just 9 candidates in the May 2 primary election. Following the primary, “each party may nominate one additional candidate by using the candidacy vacancy provisions provided for in I.C. 3-13-1,” explains Christine Hayes Hickey, JEPAC chair. She continues, “Those two additional candidates and any Libertarian or other third-party candidates, will comprise the ballot for the general election.” In other words, “the Republican and Democrat parties will nominate 10 candidates each for the 20 judicial offices to be elected in November,” which means there are no losers.

The Republicans have only the party's 9 slated judicial candidates competing in the May 2 primary, while the Democrats will have 12 candidates competing for 9 judicial spots. To the extent there is any race at all this year for these 20 critical judicial positions, it will only occur on the Democratic primary ballot. If you take a look at the JEPAC results and give them any weight, the choices for elimination are quite easy. Democrat LilaBerdia Batties was recommended by only 29.6% of the attorneys who participated in the survey, meaning that nearly 70% of her colleagues don’t believe she is fit for service on the bench. Karen Celestino-Horseman, a former city-county councilor, was recommended by only 44% of her colleagues, meaning that 66% don’t believe she is fit for service on the bench. Incidentally, Celestino-Horseman is one of the Democratic attorneys Judge Sarah Evans Barker sharply criticized in her opinion dismissing the Democrats’ lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new voter I.D. law.

The tough choice for Democrats will be selecting the third judicial candidate to eliminate. The third-lowest approved candidate is Becky Pierson-Treacy, a sitting judge who is the wife of Marion Co. Democratic chairman, Ed Treacy. Pierson-Treacy was recommended for judicial office by only 58.5% of the respondents, an embarrassing showing for a sitting judge. She was slightly bested by Democratic judicial candidate Jose Salinas, who only 61.4% of the respondents recommended for the bench. William Fatout was the only other Democratic judicial candidate who was recommended by fewer than 70% of the respondents. He drew a recommendation from 67.2% of his colleagues.

The other Democratic judicial candidates scored higher marks from their colleagues. Judge Mark Stoner topped the list with 95.2% approval, followed by Heather Welch (92.5%), Judge Grant Hawkins (90%), Judge Linda Brown (85.9%), Judge Barbara Collins (80.6%), Judge Thomas Carroll (74.9%) and Judge John Hanley (71.9%).

Although there is no competition among the Republican judicial candidates, voters can rest a little easier in knowing that all of the candidates scored a recommendation rating of at least 70%. Judge William Young came in the lowest with 70.1% of his colleagues recommending him for the bench. Judge Michael Keele scored the highest with a recommendation from 96.6% of his colleagues followed in a close second by Judge Robert Altice, Jr. with 96% recommending him for the bench. The other candidates received favorable recommendations in the following order: Judge Carol Orbison (90.4%), Judge William Nelson (88.4%), Judge Sheila Carlisle (88%), Judge Reuben Hill (82.5%), Judge Scherry “S.K.” Reid (82.2%) and candidate Clark Rogers (79.6%).

So one might wonder why there is so little competition for a prestigious position of Marion County Superior Court Judge? Some complain that the pay is too low. Judges elected this year are scheduled to earn $110,500 a year, which compares favorably to the pay scale for judges in many states, and they receive a generous pension and health benefits plan along with the job. The reason for the lack of competition is the law itself, which basically allows the parties to hand-pick who they want to fill the judicial slots in Marion County. Prior to the enactment of a recent law adding 3 new judicial spots for Marion County, each party would have nominated 9 candidates in the primary and only one of the 18 candidates would lose in the November election. This year, no candidate of either major party will lose because of the way the legislature wrote the new law providing for the addition of 3 new judges; the only losing candidates will be candidates of a third party (unless lightning strikes and one of them wins by some big miracle).

So how do you get hand-picked by one of the parties to be a judicial candidate? Make contributions to the local party, and make sure they are big enough. A look at data available from the state’s Election Division makes this abundantly clear. On the Republican side, you need to make your contribution to the Greater Indianapolis Republican Finance Committee. Let’s see how much the GOP judicial candidates have contributed to GIRFCO:

William J. Nelson ($14,900)
Michael D. Keele ($13,400)
Sheila A. Carlisle ($12,300)
Carol J. Orbison ($12,035)
Reuben B. Hill ($11,166.24)
S.K. Reid ($9,600)
William Young ($8,000)
Clark Rogers ($5,125)
Robert R. Altice, Jr. ($1,700)

If you are a Democrat, you need to make your check payable to the Marion County Democratic Central Committee. The Democrats, however, appear to let there candidates off the hook, so to speak, compared to the GOP’s judicial candidates. Here’s a look at how much the Democratic judicial candidates kicked in:

William Fatout ($8,654)
Grant Hawkins ($7,760)
Thomas J. Carroll ($7,200)
Barbara Collins ($4,205)
Linda E. Brown ($3,310)
Becky Treacy ($2,000)
Mark Stoner ($235)
John Hanley ($130)
Heather Welch ($50)
LilaBerdia Batties ($0)
Karen Horseman ($0)
Jose Salinas ($0)

The Indianapolis Bar Association should be holding its head in shame at the manner in which we select judges in Marion County. Even Lake County’s system of selecting judges through a merit selection system is preferable to Marion County’s politically-driven system. Often, I hear members of the bar complain about the incompetence of certain of Marion County’s judges. It is not uncommon for many attorneys to file for an automatic change of judge, which is permitted by court rules, if their case is assigned to a particular judge in Marion County; not because the judge is necessarily unfair, but because the attorney does not have confidence in the ability of the judge to hear his case.

Don’t count on the Indianapolis Bar Association to make any real effort in promoting judicial reform of this undemocratic system in Marion County. Two recent presidents of the Association, including the current president, Judge Cynthia Ayers and past president Gary Miller, are Marion County Superior Court judges and probably like the system just the way it is—totally political and free of competition. You would think we were living in some banana republic rather than Indianapolis based upon the system we've chosen for selecting judges.


Anonymous said...

You might want to check you figures in this article. Re-check the contributions, many are very "off".

Gary R. Welsh said...

The figures were based on what the Election Division's online campaign finance data showed at the time of the original post.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Searching by the invididual on the database turns up varying results. If you go check the reports of the committees, you will see the contributions listed there you will in the blanks. You need to look at reports over several years in some cases to get the full picture.