Thursday, January 08, 2009

Is Merit Selection Of Judges In The Offing?

An Indiana Lawyer story by Michael Hoskins in the latest edition suggests the Judicial Conference of Indiana will be pushing for statewide merit selection of judges this year, along side other government reform measures. A document authored by the Judicial Conference is awaiting the stamp approval from the Indiana Supreme Court. "This is an aspirational document, and our overarching goal is that we want to make sure citizens of Indiana have equal justice," said Marion County Superior Judge Mark Stoner, who co-chairs the Conference's strategic planning committee. Stoner described a uniform merit selection and retention system where each county would have the same selection system. Judges would be chosen for a 6-year term and then that judge would face a retention vote, mirroring the system used to select appellate court judges in the state.

Judge Stoner explains the problem with the current system in Marion County where the slating process by the political parties can cost a judicial candidate $25,000:

"This results in lawyers who have to be already wealthy to run, and the appearance about all these judges raising that much from lawyers," he said. "We simply don't want a system where a litigant feels they've won or lost because their lawyer gave or didn't give as much as the other side."

The Indiana State Bar Association also backs merit selection of judges and made its proposal to the Commission on Courts this past year. Editorially, the Indiana Lawyer has come down on the side of merit selection:

We fail to understand anyone's attachment to such a blatantly and overtly political means of putting judges in office.

We were once admonished by the head of the Marion County political parties that we didn't fully understand and appreciate the slating process because we'd never seen it work. We were encouraged to get involved in the process before criticizing it.
As an elected precinct committeeperson, I will have the opportunity at the next scheduled election of Marion County judges to vote on which candidates to nominate for the Republican Party. Yet, I am willing to give up that voting right in favor of a more sensible, merit selection system. I don't know how anyone can look at how last year's slating of judicial candidates in Marion County took place and be comfortable with what occurred. It wouldn't be so bad if the slated candidates actually faced a November contest, but the current system ensures the election of all of the slated candidates of the respective parties, save one. Most of the precinct committeepersons who vote at the slating caucus aren't elected. Because there are so many vacancies, the county chairman gets to appoint precinct committeepersons of his own liking. In the case of both political parties in Marion County, the respective county chairmen are employed by two major law firms. The GOP's Tom John works for Ice Miller; the Democrats' Ed Treacy and his predecessor, Mike O'Connor, are affiliated with Bose McKinney.

Of all the government reform measures the legislature might take up this year, I can think of none more important than merit selection. I hope the legislature ignores the pleadings of self-serving political leaders in both parties and pulls the plug on an outdated and unfair political system for choosing judges. As the Indiana Lawyer warns, "Nothing less than the credibility of our judiciary is at stake."


Paul K. Ogden said...


I too have seen the Marion County slating process "work," which is exactly why the system needs to be changed. Right now the party leaders can almost always dictate the results by appointing committeemen to vote the "right" way at slating.

I'm not sure though I would want to go to the Missouri Plan system for selection of Indiana's Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Judges. That's just politics behind closed doors. Supposedly the Commission picks the top 3 candidates strictly on merit. But almost always the list of 3 includes the person the Governor wants and/or minorities to achieve racial balance.

I'd almost rather see a version of the federal system where the Prez appoints and the Senate confirms. I don't think the lifetime appointment for federal judges has worked well though. I wouldn't want to repeat that at the state level.

roger61611 said...

So, Advance, is this going to be like the federal system where the ultraliberal ABA screens judges ?

What's so wrong about the current system, and what are the negatives about your proposed system ?

Abdul can think of nothing but consolidating townships, which will save scant money compared to other things we could be doing (not building stadiums), so let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

IndyPaul said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Gary on this one. The apprearance of financial contributions, often from lawyers, playing a large part in the selection process is disturbing and appears to be a corruption of impartiality and judicial independence. Allen, St. Joseph's, and I believe Vanderburgh counties use merit selection. I am not aware of the mechanics of these systems, nor does Stoner say who would choose the judge in the first instance, though I imagine some type of nominating commission. The makeup of that commission would obviously be critical.

Advance Indiana said...

Lake County has merit selection as well.

Indy4U2C said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Indy4U2C said...

Here's a thought: Isn't the current Marion County judicial selection process using the same process "pay to play" that Rod Blagojevich was trying to use to appoint a senator from Illinois?

Currently, candidates pay their party a "fee" ("pay-to-play bribe" may be substituted) based on the judicial salary and the political party puts them on the ballot...once on the ballot they automatically get a seat on the bench, with voters only saying that one candidate of one party does not get a judge seat so that one party has a single judge seat more than the merit involved, just the "Illinois political appointment system!"