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October 31, 2012

State court judges may be least known candidates on the ballot

INDIANAPOLIS — Most voters may not know a state Supreme Court justice up for retention election next Tuesday wrote the opinion in a landmark ruling that cleared the way for the maker of some “copycat” toy machine guns to be criminally prosecuted.

That ruling – along with more than 600 votes cast or opinions written by Justice Robert D. Rucker since he was appointed to the bench in 1999 – is on an easy-to-access public website created to give voters more information about candidates they may know the least about: the judges who sit on the state’s appellate courts.

For most voters, visiting the website, courts.IN.gov/retention, may be one of the only ways to learn about the two state Supreme Court justices and four state Court of Appeals judges who are on the November ballot.

One of them, Supreme Court Justice Steven David, has his own website, prompted by critics who want to oust him for a decision he wrote that said citizens don’t have a right to forcibly resist police. But that’s a rarity: In Indiana, appellate judges up for retention typically may not campaign unless they face active, organized opposition. It’s been that way since 1970, when Indiana voters amended the constitution to do away with direct election of the state’s appellate court judges and into place a “merit selection” process intended to keep partisanship and political pressures at bay.

Under the system, a seven-member judicial nominating commission vets applicants, and then recommends three finalists to the governor who then appoints one to the bench. Voters still have some say: After serving two years, the justice or judge has to stand for retention and let voters decide if he or she has earned another term.

“I think its served Indiana very well,” said retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, who spent 27 years on the bench and survived two retention elections. “It’s created courts that are generally centrist and modern in their viewpoint.”

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