Friday, May 16, 2008

Indiana Lawyer On Marion County's Unbecoming Judicial Election

Thank goodness someone in the news media is talking about the antiquated way we go about electing judges here in Marion County. The Indiana Lawyer editorializes for the second time this year against the slating system for selecting judges in Marion County. The editorial takes comfort in Kim Brown bucking the Democratic slate and winning election as a superior court judge. The editorial reads, in part:

It was fun while it lasted. Indiana’s moment in the national political spotlight is over now that the primary is behind us. But the newspaper is going to continue to shine a spotlight on judicial slating every chance we get.

It seems to have backfired on the Democratic ticket in Marion County. Kimberly J. Brown earned more than 80,000 votes, despite the fact that she wasn’t slated by her party. Many of us in Marion County had a chance to see her billboards and yard signs. We wish the new judge the best of luck when she takes the bench.

Brown was outdone only by Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, who netted more than 93,000 votes.

Brown’s name was at the top of the list of candidates on the ballot, as they are listed in alphabetical order. Judge Gerald Zore, at the bottom of the alphabetical list, was narrowly returned to office, in spite of the fact that he’s the county’s presiding judge. Judge Garland Graves, who was slated, did not retain his seat in the Marion Superior courts.

You’ll remember our position on the subject from earlier this year, when it was announced that Judges Kenneth Johnson and Gary Miller weren’t slated by the Republican Party. Pro Tem Judge Angela Dow Davis wasn’t slated by the Democrats.
None of these judges chose to run against the slate. Judges Johnson and Miller told us at the time that the process of “running against the slate” was not what they signed on for when they became judges. Judge Miller, in fact, called the process “unseemly.”

Sadly, Brown's win against the slate had more to do with her placement at the top of a 9-candidate field than the voter's determination to send a message to the Democratic Party against slating judicial candidates. Both parties do it to be sure. In the Republican Party primary this year, you had no choices. There were eight candidates, and all eight will become superior court judges after this November's election unless lightning strikes and a Libertarian candidate wins.

What is of particular note in the Indiana Lawyer editorial is a prominent member of the judiciary who has emerged as a stinging critic of the system. The editorial points to testimony U.S. Magistrate Judge William Lawrence gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing to replace U.S. Court of Appeals Judge John Tender as a district court judge in the Southern District of Indiana. Here's what Lawrence had to say:

We couldn’t help being reminded of that word when we read about Magistrate William Lawrence’s meeting with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. He’s awaiting a vote on his bid to become a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

Magistrate Lawrence was asked about his feelings regarding partisan politics, in light of how as a federal judge, he would be asked as to make decisions on executive actions that could be interpreted to have partisan connections, such as executive power. You can read about the committee’s hearing in a story in this issue of Indiana Lawyer.

“I don’t think there is politics …” Magistrate Lawrence told the senator who asked the question. “When you’re a judge … you leave your agenda at the front door. I think part of the responsibilities of a judge is to provide a canvas for attorneys to try their case. A judge’s ideology, preferences, dislikes play no part in the decision-making process a judge must render.”

The senator asked Magistrate Lawrence whether he didn’t have that comfort at the state level.

Magistrate Lawrence explained how Marion County judges are elected on a strictly partisan basis that means running in primaries, attending local political functions, and raising money for the judicial races.

“Clearly, the very people we were asking for money are the very people that are going to be appearing in front of us after the election. I thought that was very distasteful, and I was very vocal about my opposition to that,” he said.

I agree with Judge Miller that the current process is "unseemly." And I agree with Judge Lawrence that it is "distasteful." Lawrence served as a Marion Co. Circuit Court Judge prior to becoming a federal magistrate so he has first-hand knowledge as well. I hope that we can form a bipartisan, coalition here in Marion County to convince the General Assembly to replace our current system in Marion County with a merit selection system, which the state already has in place for supreme court and appellate court positions, as well as Lake and St. Joseph Counties.


Unknown said...

The problem is the "merit" selection process is steeped in politics as well, but it is politics behind closed doors. The fact is, despite the Missouri Plan system used here in Indiana, it's the same regardless of whether it's a Democrat or Republican Govenor. The Govenor tells the Judicial Qualification which judge he wants in the top 3 candidates, that candidate always makes it and is selected by the Governor. I think the federal system is much superior to the Missouri Plan. That is what we should consider.

Sir Hailstone said...

As I stated before Gary, in a judicial selection system, who selects the selectors? Keep in mind the US Senate got tied up a couple years ago over judicial confirmations.

IndyPaul said...

Allalehja, Gary, a post I can heartily agree with (rare!). I was one that purposely voted for Kim Brown as a protest againt the ridiculous slating process. Kudos to Bill Lawrence for being forthright in the Senate hearings.

JudgeNot said...

I favor "merit" selection for two very significant reasons. First, the "merit" process takes a substantially shorter period of time than does the current process. People who want to run for judge and incumbants begin their campaign as much as two years before the slating convention. Merit selection generally occurs in a 60 day period. Second, candidates for judge are raising substantial sums of money from the very lawyers who practice in front of them. The legal community is tired of being the source of funding for candidates who end up using most of the money to support the county political party. In the "merit" selection process, there is no need for fundraising and the rules would prohibit it.

There is no perfect way to select judges. Politics enters the equation regardless of the process used. Merit selection is the ssystem that best reduces the "unseemly" nature of the process.