Sunday, April 23, 2006

Marion County's "Bipartisan Judiciary"

The Star's Richard Walton takes a look at Marion County's politically-driven judicial selection process five days after AI first took a look at a system which will give us 20 judicial candidates in November and no losers. Walton thinks of the system as a "Rube Goldberg-like system for choosing superior court judges, a blend of party politics and safeguards to keep campaigning to a minimum."

Judge Robert Altice, Jr. defends the process, which he calls a "hybrid" system which allows "party input while giving voters a say." Barnes & Thornburg attorney and former Indianapolis Bar Association President John Maley, commenting on the flood of campaign fundraising solicitations he's been receiving from judicial candidates rhetorically asks: "Does that instill confidence in the integrity and independence of the judiciary?"

Superior Court Judge Cale Bradford thinks the system actually builds "a strong, bipartisan judiciary." He says, "It will also cut down on the need for judges to raise money that primarily comes from attorneys." That's spoken by a person who was hand-picked by Marion County Republicans for a seat on the superior court when he was still a very young attorney with very little experience. But he had what counted most in Marion County--a family with strong political connections.

Judge Altice tells Walton that he would have had to raise at least $60,000 if his race had been competitive, but he now expects to get by on much less with no competition. What is totally missing from Walton's story is why Altice has to spend any money at all. While he touches on the slating process, he ignores a central point in our story this past week about how much judicial candidates have to pay over to the local parties in order to get slated. While Altice kicked in only $1,700 to the Greater Indianapolis Republican Finance Committee, his fellow GOP candidates have paid the local party substantially more. William Nelson, Michael Keele, Sheila Carlisle, Carol Orbison and Reuben Hill have all kicked in more than $10,000 each to GIRFCO over the last several years.

The slating process essentially allows a small group of party insiders to hand-pick the party's judicial candidates. There is nothing open about the process at all. And these people who make the decision could care less about your abilities as an attorney. As long as you have been admitted to practice law for at least 5 years, demonstrate that you are loyal to your political party and pay the so-called "slating fee", you get the party's blessing. Walton's failure to include this aspect of the process in his report is inexcusable and a disservice to the Star's readers.

The Star includes the Indianapolis Bar Association's survey ratings of the judicial columns as a side bar to the main story, but it offers no context or insight to the Star's readers on what to make of the ratings. As we noted in our story this past week, two of the Democratic candidates, Karen Celestino-Horseman and LilaBerdia Batties, were recommended for the bench by fewer than half of the responding attorneys. One sitting judge, Becky Pierson-Treacy, wife of Democratic County Chairman Ed Treacy, was recommended by only 58.5% of the responding attorneys. Walton included an explanation from Batties as to her low rating; she thinks that other attorneys think she is rude because "they mist[ake] her strong advocacy for clients for lack of courtesy." That's as close as Walton comes to telling us anything meaningful about the judicial ratings.

It's nice that the Star finally has spoken at all on this extremely important subject. But as the newspaper of record for our state, AI would expect better reporting, which would generate the public outrage that is needed to overhaul Marion County's judicial selection process to ensure that the system is open to all qualified candidates, and is one that eliminates the backroom deal-making from the process.

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