League of Women Voters

Courting Unification: An Allegory

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In 1959 an act of governance dropped the number of school districts in Indiana 966 to 402 by consolidating schools and creating districts that served more than 1,000 students. The consolidation of schools began nationwide, stemming from the efforts of retired Harvard president James B Conant.

Indiana’s code urged (but did not require) communities to merge. Many in Montgomery County were proud to be part of the consolidations that improved opportunities and modernized education. Today Montgomery County has three districts, three superintendents and their staff, with 6,100 students. Our districts have anywhere from 1,700-plus students to nearly 2,600. In 2017, Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research reported that in larger districts students benefited from “access to more advanced and varied courses” and higher test scores.

At the time, the consolidation was a mixed blessing. On one the one hand, students had to travel further to get to school. Communities — Alamo, for instance — lost their local basketball teams, which brought the town together on Friday nights. On the other, high school students gained access to more courses, including vocational and advanced courses, extracurriculars, and learning experiences that prepared them for jobs and college. Quite quickly, consolidation created greater equity and opportunity. But this week’s column is not about schools, it’s about courts. Courts are critical in matters of equity for us as citizens. One in nine of us will be involved in a court case in our lifetimes, but we don’t always understand the system or what to expect from how it runs, hence the allegory.

Consolidation is akin to unification, as in court unification in the state.The League of Women Voters Indiana posits that “Indiana should maintain a single statewide court system with uniformity of rules and records, of fiscal responsibility, of assignment of judges and cases, and of administration. As an interim measure, the state should allow court reorganization in individual counties.” This is to say that after the League of Women Voters studied the distribution of finances and cases, the qualification of judges and court staff, as well as the applications of rules, it determined that we can and should move to a more efficient, equitable system.

Before 1959’s act to consolidate schools, an Alamo-sized school couldn’t offer all that Southmont can now. At the time, our parents and grandparents couldn’t imagine the need for more diverse courses and experiences for their kids. The world changed.

So too have cases that go before courts. There are more divorces and domestic cases. We know more about how addiction complicates criminality in drug cases. We have more juveniles in the system who’ve suffered numerous adverse childhood experiences. Now is the time to unify our courts. We need a fully-funded, non-political judicial system where court staff avoid superfluous duties. They should be able to concentrate on the duties that the American Bar Association outlines: “apply the law to specific controversies, resolve disputes between people, companies and units of government,” “uphold limitations on the government” and “protect against abuses by all branches of government.”

When we informed readers about voting for judges a couple of weeks ago, we spoke to the system as is, but the League statement calls us to a better system. The League calls for merit-based appointments, for lawyer judges, and to ensure that our judges do not have the pressures of running for office. One of the most pernicious pressures is campaign fundraising. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) said it plainly in an interview on NPR, “the fundraising is gross.” It gobbles up time better spent on the duties of the office, and muddies relationships between judges and their donors. The time spent campaigning wastes more of the judges’ resources. Haven’t we all heard that time is money?

Merit based nominations means that a committee of non- or bi-partisan lawyers and non-lawyers select candidates from which the governor can choose. After the appointment, a judge may face voters to retain the position. In this case, voters would need solid reporting about affiliations and judicial decisions because without those we cannot be an informed electorate. We don’t want to retain judges in spite of valid concerns about them. For further protection, the League calls for a discipline and removal commission should there be public complaints.With confidential hearings to protect judges, the commission can recommend disciplinary action as needed.

The court system is one more way to reform injustices that affect poor and minority groups disproportionately. Unification improves opportunities to do what the American Bar Association calls on courts to do: “protect minorities of all types from the majority, and protect the rights of people who can’t protect themselves,” and to “embody notions of equal treatment and fair play.”

 

The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information about the League, visit the website www.lwvmontco.org or voice mail 765-361-2136.

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