Earlier this week the Indiana House rejected a floor amendment to an unrelated bill that would have ended merit selection in St. Joseph’s County (h/t Gavel Grab). For long time readers, this may be déjà vu, because the exact same thing was attempted in 2008. House floor amendment #3 offered to SB 518, a bill making mostly technical changes to the state’s election laws (the title is “Various election law matters”). According to the South Bend Tribune (the House’s Journal is no online yet) the amendment failed 26-64.
As I noted, this exact scenario occurred in 2008, so some background is in order.
Only a few trial courts in Indiana use merit selection, some of which are in St. Joseph County. In 2007 two bills were introduced, one to end merit selection for St. Joseph County in particular (HB 1571) while the other covered St. Joseph & Lake Counties (HB 1341).
When these bills failed proponents changed tactics in the 2008 session. Rather than introducing or re-introducing the 2007 bills, they tried to add repeal of merit as amendments to other bills. Specifically, they introduced House amendment #1 and House amendment #2 to SB 329 of 2008, a bill changing the state’s pension plan for judges. The House rejected amendment #1 on a 45-49 vote, but the final version of the bill that came out of a House/Senate conference committee directed the state’s Commission on Courts to study the method of judicial selection for St. Joseph County and report to the Legislature by November 1, 2008.
That report came out with a 7-2 vote in favor of merit selection in St. Joseph County and 9-0 for expanding merit selection to cover some judges in Lake County not already covered.
*The current merit selection system for St. Joseph Superior Court judges has attracted outstanding lawyers to seek and assume judicial careers and has provided those men and women with the ability to rule in a fair and impartial manner without fear of partisan retaliation for their decisions.
*The merit selection system holds these judges accountable to the people of their community for their professional and personal behavior.
*In calling on the General Assembly to provide for the merit selection of judges, Governor Roger Branigan in 1964 said that the State should “offer to the judges … the promise of reasonable tenure if they perform well, and which will insure them, to the fullest extent possible, freedom from political pressures. The current system for selecting and retaining St. Joseph Superior Court judges achieves the objectives set out by Governor Branigan in 1964.
In what was then an unrelated vote, the same Commission on Courts also recommended creation of a Sixth District of the Court of Appeals.
In the 2009 legislative session an attempt was once again made to end merit selection in St. Joseph County (HB 1491). This version did pass the House, 88-3. However, the Senate added an amendment creating a Sixth District of the Court of Appeals and letting the current Governor pick all the judges of the court via the state’s merit selection system.
Governor Mitch Daniels vetoed the bill and praised merit selection in St. Joseph County.
The current method of selecting judges for the St. Joseph Superior Court has prevailed successfully for 35 years. It is a model to be emulated, not discarded. It is not broken; it requires no repair. It has produced outstanding jurists and contains sufficient measures of public accountability. I believe it neither necessary nor wise to re-politicize the courts of St. Joseph County.
Daniels was also not pleased with the attempt to tie the repeal of merit selection to giving him more picks on the Court of Appeals.
Moreover, if I were to sign a bill linking these two proposals, it could contribute to public cynicism by creating the appearance that my acquiescence was purchased with more appointments. Whatever the merits of expanding the Court of Appeals may be, they should be considered alone
From 2009-2013 the efforts to repeal merit selection in St. Joseph County went quiet until the latest amendment attempt. Interestingly, no stand-alone bill has been introduced to repeal merit selection in the county.