Clark County is the only county in Indiana that will have two contested judicial races in the November general election. (Photo/Marilyn Odendahl)

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

May 1, 2024

Hoosiers have an adage: If you don’t like the weather in Indiana, wait a few minutes. It will change.

The same could be said about the judiciary: If you don’t like how your county selects judges, drive a few miles and you’ll find a different process.

A majority of the trial court judges in Indiana are elected by the voters in partisan races. In Allen County, the elections are partisan for circuit court and nonpartisan for superior court while in Vanderburgh County, all the judicial races are nonpartisan. And in Lake, Marion and St. Joseph counties, superior court judges are appointed through merit selection.

Despite the variety of selection methods, competitive races for judgeships are rare. As Robert Dion, chair of the political science department at the University of Evansville, said, Indiana’s judicial elections “are pretty sleepy affairs.”

In the May primary, residents in 58 counties will be voting for judges running as either a Republican or Democrat. However, a majority of the judicial races are uncontested with only 16 primary elections having two or more candidates for the judgeship. The number of competitive races – featuring a Republican and a Democrat – drops even lower to just five in the November general election.

Even so, voters in the few counties with competitive judicial races will have to stay focused when they go to the polling place. They will have to plow through a primary ballot that will require them to select candidates for president, Congress, the Indiana General Assembly and their local county offices, before they even get to the judicial races.

Those voters will then likely have to make a less-than-informed choice when picking from the judicial hopefuls. Candidates for the bench are constrained in what they can do, or say, on the campaign trail by the Indiana Code of Judicial Conduct so Hoosiers trying to select a judge will likely know little about the background, conduct, and judicial philosophy of those vying for the judgeship.

Conversely, voters in the counties with nonpartisan judicial elections have even less information to draw upon, since the candidates are not identified as either Republican or Democrat.  And voters in the three merit-selection counties will not have judges on their ballots until the November election where the only choice they will be allowed is whether they want to retain the current judges already on the bench.

Indiana’s patchwork of judicial selection is reflective of a complex question that, Dion said, confounded the founding fathers. In writing Federalist Paper 51, James Madison saw a limit to the fundamental principle that people should choose their leaders. Judges, Madison opined, must have “peculiar qualifications” to serve and the general public does not have the knowledge to make that decision.

 Dion said he always remembers “peculiar qualifications.”

“The idea is that picking judges is hard. You want to get it right,” Dion said. “Putting it to a popular vote is unwise, according to the founding fathers of the Republic. Here we are, 230 years later and there is evidence to suggest that partisan elections present dangers and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that nonpartisan elections are less than ideal.

“If you avoid elections altogether and have appointments,” Dion continued, “that is subject to all kinds of unpleasant outcomes if the process isn’t transparent or if it’s too included to favored people.”

Lots of uncontested judicial races

Retirements are creating 17 open seats on the bench in Indiana this year, according to an analysis by The Indiana Citizen of the Indiana Secretary of State’s list of 2024 primary candidates.

Sixteen of those races for the upcoming vacancies will take place in counties with partisan judicial elections. Eight of the races have two or more candidates competing in the GOP primary, while the remaining eight have unopposed candidates.

The election to replace Warrick County Superior Court No. 2 Judge Amy Miskimen would have been a contested primary. However, attorney Bronson “Nick” Dossett was blocked from the ballot, because he had not voted in the two previous Republican primaries, which left Brett Michael Roy as the lone candidate.

Vanderburgh County Circuit Court Judge David Kiely’s retirement is creating the lone nonpartisan judicial race. Voters will choose between Magistrate Judge Molly Briles and Indiana Rep. Ryan Hatfield in the November general election.

Of the eight uncontested partisan judicial primaries, the retirements of judges in Clark, Johnson and Vigo counties each have unopposed Democrats and Republicans vying in May 7 contest, so the races for those empty seats will be competitive in the general election. Also, Judge Kyle Williams of Clark County Circuit Court No. 6 has a Democratic challenger, Andrea Wasson, for the November election.

Eight incumbent Republican judges are facing primary challenges in May. All of the sitting judges are facing just one challenger with the exception of Carroll County Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Diener and Hendricks County Superior Court No. 3 Judge Ryan Tanselle, who are both fending off two opponents.

Joel Schumm, clinical professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, is not surprised by the low number of competitive judicial races.

With the Republican Party so dominant in the state, any lawyer running as a Democrat would likely have difficulty gaining traction with the voters, Schumm said. The partisan hurdle is compounded by straight ticket voting, he added.

Moreover, challenging a sitting judge can create an awkward dynamic, Schumm said, and be risky, especially in rural communities, where the pool of lawyers is small and the judicial hopeful regularly appears in the incumbent’s court to represent clients.

Of course, the main reason might be because no one has any complaints about their local judges.

“A lot of judges don’t draw an opponent either because they’re doing a good job or they’re doing a good enough job that no one wants to run against them,” Schumm said.

Voters’ difficulty making informed choices

Canon 4 of the judicial conduct code places many restrictions on individuals running for the judiciary.

For example, the judicial candidates cannot assume a leadership position in a political party, make a speech on behalf of a political organization, or endorse or oppose another candidate running for public office. Also, judicial hopefuls have to maintain a perception of impartiality and independence, so they cannot make statements or pledges that might imply bias and they cannot personally solicit or accept contributions to their campaigns.

These rules help keep judicial races above political mudslinging, but voters are given few details about the people who want to be judges in their courts. Schumm, who directs the appellate clinic at IU McKinney and has represented more than 120 indigent clients on appeal, said he has fielded calls from lawyers seeking information on judicial candidates, because even though they practice law, they can still be at a loss when trying to vote for a judge.

Elections can be a good opportunity for judges to get out of their courtrooms to meet their constituents at the county fair or some other community event, Schumm said. However, voters, particularly in larger counties, may enter the polling booth not knowing if the sitting judge is moving cases along, adhering to the rule of law, and treating the lawyers and litigants with respect.

Consequently, voters may be basing their selection on one case or ruling that caught the media’s attention or which candidate’s name sounds better, Schumm said.

“Imagine what it’s like for the average layperson,” Schumm said of nonlawyers voting for judges. “There’s just not a wealth of information.”

Shumm and Julia Vaughn, executive director of Common Cause Indiana, both support merit selection as the best method for choosing judges. Turning the choice over to a committee takes the selection process out of the hands of voters who are “kind of driving blind in the voting booth,” Vaughn said, and alleviates judicial candidates from having to raise money for a campaign, which can raise questions about conflicts of interest.

“How carefully are voters making these decisions?” Vaughn asked, while noting that in larger communities, several judges can appear on a single ballot. “It’s really difficult for the most informed voter to really know who they’re voting for. Voting for judges sounds good but how carefully are those decisions being made?”

Despite the “crazy quilt system” of selecting judges, Dion, of the University of Evansville, said the Indiana judicial system is “mostly working” and the electorate is “finding its way to getting judges who are doing a decent job.” Still, the judicial election process causes him to fear that Indiana could become like Illinois or Wisconsin, where the judiciary has become so politicized that judges run in “really big dollar, scorched earth” campaigns.

“When you have these millions of dollars just cascading in and these attacks and these really coarse characterizations, it really cheapens the process,” Dion said. “Then the average citizen starts to lose faith in the system and that’s a real problem.”

Indiana judicial races of note in 2024


Retirements creating contested primaries

Circuit courts and judges who are retiring [and candidates for the open seats]
Clay – Judge Joseph Trout [Emily Clarke, Charles Hear and David Thomas]
Kosciusko – Judge Michael W. Reed [Jack C. Birch and Matthew J. Buehler]
LaPorte – Judge Thomas J. Alevizos [Kurt R. Earnst, Julianne K. Havens and Charles D. Watterson IV]
Pike – Judge Jeffrey Biesterveld [Evan C. Biesterveld and Boyd A. Toler]

Superior courts and judges who are retiring [and candidates for the open seats]
DeKalb No. 2– Judge Monte L. Brown [Carolyn S. Foley and Patrick L. Jessup]
Hendricks No. 1– Judge Robert W. Freese [Joshua D. Adair, Jeremy Eglen, Scott Knierim and Kathryn M. Kuehn]
Newton – Judge Daniel J. Molter [Linda L. Harris, Patrick K. Ryan and Ryan D. Washburn]
Wayne – Judge Charles K. Todd Jr. [J. Clayton Miller, Ronald J. Moore and Austin A. Shadle]

Retirements without contested primaries

Circuit courts and retiring judge [and sole candidates for the open seats]
Rush – Judge David Northam [Brian D. Hill]
Steuben – Judge Allen N. Wheat [Jeremy T. Musser]

Superior courts and retiring judge [and sole candidates for the open seats]
Elkhart – Judge Stephen R. Bowers [Andrew M. Hicks]
Marshall – Judge Robert O. Bowen [Tami Napier]
Warrick No. 2– Judge Amy Miskimen [Brett Michael Roy]


Retirements resulting in competitive general elections

Clark Circuit No. 4 – Judge Vicki Carmichael [candidates Dustin T. White (D) and Lisa G. Reger (R)]
Johnson Superior No. 1 –Judge Kevin Barton [candidates Gloria Danielson (D) and Brandi Foster Kirkendall (R)]
Vanderburgh Circuit  – Judge David D. Kiely [nonpartisan candidates Molly Briles and Ryan Hatfield]
Vigo Superior No. 6 – Judge Michael J. Lewis [candidates Kenneth E. McVey III (D) and Daniel Kelly (R)]

Primary challenges to incumbent judges

Circuit courts and judges [and challengers]
Carroll – Judge Benjamin A. Diener [Shane M. Evans and Jeffrey C. Rider]
Franklin – Judge J. Steven Cox [Alex Dudley]
Henry – Judge David L. McCord [Joe Lansinger]
Jasper – Judge John D. Potter [Emily Waddle]
Vermillion – Judge Daniel R. Young [Chris A. Wrede]

Superior courts and judges [and challengers]
Grant – Judge Bridget N. Foust [Nathan D. Meeks]
Hendricks No. 3 – Judge Ryan W. Tanselle [Bradford S. Casselman and Travis Crane]
Howard No. 2 – Judge Rebecca R. Vent [Blake N. Dahl]

General election challenge to incumbent judge

Clark Circuit Court No. 6 – Judge Kyle P. Williams (R ) [Andrea Wasson Stemle (D)]

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

The Indiana Citizen is a nonpartisan, nonprofit platform dedicated to increasing the number of informed and engaged Hoosier citizens. We are operated by the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) public charity. For questions about the story, contact Marilyn Odendahl at

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