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Friday, February 3, 2023

Black Legislators alarmed by proposed judicial selection bill

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Members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus are concerned that a proposed judicial selection process would limit the diversity of Marion County’s superior court judges. 

In the past, Democrats and Republicans conducted elections to nominate judicial candidates. The process was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge because judges who won primary elections were essentially guaranteed a win in the general election. House Bill 1036, authored by Rep. Gregory Steuerwald (R-Avon), aims to establish a 14-member merit-selection committee. The committee will nominate judges, one of which will be chosen by the governor to serve on Marion County’s superior court.

This bill, which has recently passed through the Indiana House of Representatives and is now moving to the Senate, has many Black legislators alarmed because it would make Marion the fifth Indiana county to make judges appointed rather than elected. Black lawmakers point out that the bill does not require the selection committee to create a diverse bench. 

Senator Greg Taylor (D-Indianapolis), says the bench should reflect the community.  

“When you look at Marion County, we have a highly diverse community. When you look at the makeup of the community they would use to select these judges you only have one sure thing, the Marion County Bar Association would likely choose someone of color. I think it’s important that we do what we can to make sure the bench reflects the community. If you don’t have diversity of thought on the bench there is no reason to have the courts,” said Taylor.

The Marion County Bar Association is a group comprised of African-American law professionals. It was founded in 1942 because of the exclusionary policies of white law associations. 

Steurwald, who authored the bill, says representing the makeup of Marion County and balancing the responsibilities of courts is a key goal of the bill. At press time, Steurwald was not available to speak and e-mailed the following statement to The Recorder: 

“As home to the state capital, Marion County’s courts are unique in that they have certain jurisdiction in cases that come from all over Indiana,” he said. “The commission created through this legislation would help ensure a diverse, qualified bench while limiting the influence of either political party. Aiming for a judiciary that represents the makeup of Marion County while also balancing the distinct responsibilities of these courts is a key goal of this bipartisan bill.”

Steurwald also added that all 36 judges have arrived at a consensus and are in support of the bill.

State Rep. Cherrish Pryor (D-Indianapolis) disagrees.

“The notion that they all agree is not accurate. They were told not to speak out against the bill publicly. I have yet to see a document with 36 signatures indicating their support,” she said. 

Roxana Bell, former president of the Marion County Bar Association, says this bill is very similar to Senate Bill 352, a bill the Marion County Bar Association opposed last year. 

“I am speaking as a Marion county resident, because I can’t speak for the organization anymore. I will say that we chose to oppose a very similar bill last year. The opinion was that (if the bill was passed) voters would have no meaningful vote. To turn around and propose a new bill that takes away the vote entirely doesn’t help these concerns,” said Bell. 

“In this new version it says they are encouraged to consider diversity. The fact that there is no requirement and it’s just something to be considered doesn’t have the same teeth to it. It’s a very small step in the right direction, but I don’t see any justification for treating Marion County any differently than counties that have direct election.” 

Members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus agree that a fair way to appoint judges would be allowing the public to vote for them in an election.  

“Eighty-seven counties in Indiana vote on their judges. Instead of taxpayers voting on who they want their judges to be, why are we being told by a committee that these people will be your judges?” said Pryor. “Allen County, Lake County, Marion County and other counties with a significant number of minorities don’t get to select our judges, and majority white and Republican counties do.”

Indiana’s desperate need for more diversity in our court system is at the heart of this debate. It wasn’t long ago that Justice Robert Rucker, the only Black member of the current Indiana Supreme Court, announced his retirement. Now the highest court in Indiana will likely be void of minorities.

“We have to make sure we actually put people in place who represent the community and what that community looks like, then we will have a good indication as to what the diversity on the bench would look like. I think it’s important that we do what we can to make sure that the community is represented,” said Taylor.

Pryor says the fight for diversity has been a “power struggle.”

“This is about the disenfranchisement of both minority and Democrat voters. One of the reasons I think there is significant pushback is because if Marion County were to vote on their judges the way other counties do we would have more Democrat judges, and Republicans do not want that.” said Pryor. “That’s not a good enough reason to take away people’s right to vote. There is a power struggle, and our democracy and right to vote should not be taken away because a political party wants to control the process.” 

 

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