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House And Senate Differ On Commission-appointed Judges, Retainment Ballots

Joe Gratz

The next time voters choose judges in Marion County, they may not know who's a Republican and who's a Democrat.

A federal court ordered legislators to replace the current system which elects an equal number of Republicans and Democrats in the primary.

The Senate voted to stop electing judges at all, and have a commission appoint them, but then voters would vote yes or no on keeping them. The House version strips the party labels from the yes-or-no ballot.

Defense Trial Council of Indiana spokesman Tom Schultz says that’s a big improvement.

“Just as a lawyer who’s practiced here for this long, I don’t look at any of the judges I’m in front of and think ‘that’s a Democrat’ or ‘that’s a Republican.’ That just doesn’t come up,” Schultz says. “It’s more: what is this judge’s qualifications and background and how they handle their courtrooms is more important to me than what party they are.” 

The House bill also makes the commission itself less partisan. The Senate bill created a 16-member commission, with all but two appointed by Republican and Democratic officials.

The House version has just eight partisan appointees, with the remaining four seats appointed by various bar associations, Indiana’s chief justice, and the chief judge of the Indiana Court of Appeals.

The Indianapolis Bar Association’s Kevin McGoff says the six commission appointments by partisan officials won’t taint the process.

“What I believe is that when a lawyer is charged with being a member of the commission and put into the room with the chief justice of Indiana, with the chief judge of the Court of Appeals of Indiana, that those citizens leave their political hat outside,” McGoff says.

Common Cause Indiana spokeswoman Julia Vaughn says while her group normally advocates for voters' rights, judges need to be insulated from politics.

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