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.”
But as Shepard also notes, it’s also created a challenge for voters to find out more about who those justices and judges are.
While no appellate court judge has been removed since Indiana’s constitution was amended, Shepard said that may reflect more of a “vote of confidence” in the merit selection system than in the individual judges.
So four years ago, at the urging of the legislature, the Indiana Supreme Court’s Division of State Court Administration created the judicial retention website to provide more information to voters. Updated with every election cycle, it contains biographical information on the state court justices and judges who are up for retention, along with access to judicial opinions they’ve written, supported, or dissented from.
The website also allows visitors to watch oral arguments in the cases they’ve heard.
It’s where voters can go to find information on Rucker and David, and also on the four Court of Appeals judges up for retention this year: Judge John G. Baker from Bloomington, the longest-serving member on the current Court of Appeals; Judge Nancy H. Vaidik, a former prosecutor and trial court judge in Porter County; Judge Paul Mathis of Fort Wayne, a former trial court judge; and Judge Michael Barnes of South Bend, who spent 20 years as a prosecutor before joining the court.
The website is also where voters can find the majority opinion written by Justice David in the “Richard L. Barnes v. State of Indiana” case, which created a small uproar last spring. David wrote that Indiana law did not allow a citizen to forcibly resist police from unlawful entry into his or her home.
Critics said the decision violated the state’s “castle doctrine” of self-defense.
The ruling also prompted some Tea Party groups around the state to launch an effort to vote David out of office when he faces next Tuesday’s retention vote.
Visiting the website isn’t like watching a 60-second campaign commercial.
It takes work to scroll through the database of cases and read the opinions.
But it’s informative, if you have the time and interest.
“I think if you believe in democracy,” Shepard said, “you have to believe that the more people know about the votes they cast, the healthier the system is.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.