What are judicial retention elections? [Indiana, other states]

While I try to focus on tech-related posts here, occasionally I have reason to provide a greater public service. In this case, I’d like to share some information about judicial retention elections that voters will face this year.

In many jurisdictions around the country, judges are chosen by popular vote. In other jurisdictions, such as Arizona and my own state of Indiana, we select some judges by a system known as merit selection and retention. Basically, the system works like this. When a judicial vacancy occurs, attorneys can apply to be named as the judge for that court. Applications are reviewed by a committee (cleverly named the judicial nominating committee), and the committee conducts interviews of candidates. The committee then chooses what it feels are the three best candidates and forwards those names to Indiana’s governor. The governor then makes the selection, and the new judge takes office.

The committee is made up of lawyers, non-lawyers, and one justice from the Indiana Supreme Court who serves as the chair. The lawyers on the committee are voted in by their peers. The non-lawyers are named by the governor and serve a specific term. It is possible that members of the committee might serve yet never have to work on filling a vacancy. Thus, members are chosen to serve for a number of years that overlap gubernatorial terms, and since no vacancies may occur, it’s a little difficult for a governor to “stack the deck.”

Roughly two years later, Indiana voters are invited to weigh in on the selection by voting on a simple ballot question: “Should Judge John Doe be retained?” If a majority vote no, the judicial officer is removed from office and the process begins again. If the majority votes yes, then the judge continues to serve—but he or she will face the voters again every six years thereafter.

Many voters feel they are not able to cast informed votes in these retention questions, and they therefore just skip them. In order to help voters who may not be familiar with the particular judges, the Indiana judiciary and the Indiana State Bar Association provide some information and opinions.

The Indiana State Bar Association surveyed its members this year, and voters can review those results in the ISBA’s press release.

The Indiana judiciary has also provided information on the judicial officers.

Neither the ISBA nor the Indiana judiciary take a position on whether anyone should be retained or removed. The ISBA survey is the opinion of only those members who responded to the survey, and the judiciary’s information is more biographical than anything else.

Your particular county may also have judicial retention questions on the ballot. Many county bar associations conduct surveys to help voters make these decisions, so you may wish to check their web sites.

Merit selection and retention is, in my view, the ideal way to select judges. The particular reasons why I feel this way will be the topic of another post. For now, please go out and inform yourself. Most importantly, vote!

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