Compromise sought on SJC elected judges issue

Much like Thanksgiving and Christmas it seemingly comes once a year—a bare knuckles brawl in the Indiana General Assembly as to whether St. Joseph County Superior Court judges should be elected or appointed.

This year will be different.

Two camps that have fought for decades over elected judges as an ‘either or proposition,’ are now talking compromise.

“Really, (HB) 1298 is about trying to bring as much public accountability into our judicial system in St. Joseph County as we can, but does not go as far as requiring the election of county judges.”

Under the proposal, St. Joseph County voters would not have the power at the polls to put superior court judges on the bench, although it could become a heck of a lot easier to kick judges off.

HB 1298 would lower the standard for lowering the boom—requiring that a ‘no’ vote of 40-percent or more would be good enough to remove a judge from office.

“In St. Joseph County, a judge has never been not-retained,” said Rep. Wesco. “I think this really sets the bar up a little bit higher so that the judges know they need to maintain a high level of professionalism.”

Others feel the 40 percent rule flies in the face of fundamental Democracy.

“It really doesn’t make any sense under our principles of Democracy in any way, it’s, you’re allowing a minority of the people to vote someone out of office,” said Joseph Fullenkamp, with the St. Joseph County Bar Association.

But arch enemies now do find some common ground in another part of the bill. It seeks to inject some elected officials into a judicial selection process that currently has none.

In fact, “the current code forbids elected officials from serving on the commission,” said Ind. Rep. Tim Wesco, (R) Osceola.

The revised judicial nominating commission would have six elected officials seated on a nine member panel.

Elected participants would be the Sheriff of St. Joseph County, the President of the St. Joseph County Commissioners, the mayors of South Bend and Mishawaka, and the two St. Joseph County judges that are currently elected—those from the Probate and Superior Courts.

“When people who serve on that nominating commission and directly elected by the people the people can then contact that individual and make their wishes and desires clearly known to them. When it’s just an appointed person on the committee, there's not as much feeling that you can contact those commission members,” said Rep. Wesco.

“It's a good attempt to try to bring some accountability in and try to keep out partisan politics,” said Fullencamp. “The bill itself is a good proposal in terms of trying to improve the judicial nominating commission. It can always be improved and the bar is interested in doing that too.”

In the end, the Governor of Indiana makes the final decision on judicial appointments for St. Joseph County by choosing from a field of five finalists selected by the Judicial Nominating Commission.

St. Joseph County is one of only two in the State of Indiana where judges are appointed by the Governor instead of elected by the people.

Wesco’s bill would also set a mandatory retirement age of 75 for judges on the superior court.

The measure has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

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