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3 task force proposals address issues in Marion County Small Claims courts

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The Marion County Small Claims Task Force created by the Indiana Supreme Court has released its report outlining its investigation into problems within the county’s small claims courts. The report proposes three ways to address the problems, including incorporating the small claims courts into Marion Superior Court.

The task force, made up of Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John Baker and Senior Judge Betty Barteau, found “serious problems in the management and procedures” of the small claims courts. At a press conference Tuesday, Baker said the concerns surrounding practices in Marion County Small Claims courts could be taking place in other parts of the state, but the report only looked at Marion County. Marion County is unique in Indiana as it’s the only county that has its small claims courts funded by the townships instead of the county or state.

The task force was created this year in response to allegations, including that debt-collection creditors engage in forum shopping among the township courts, these creditors and other high-volume filers receive special treatment in the small claims courts, and that small claims judges are not always present in the courtroom for court proceedings.

After a series of public hearings held in February and March, the task force uncovered “significant and widespread problems,” according to the report, including some township trustees interfering with the operation of the courts and creditors’ attorneys having special access to or special relationships with some of the township court personnel.

The report outlines three potential plans to address these issues.

Plan A would move the small claims court into Marion Superior Court. Plan B would leave the courts as township courts, but they would undergo reform to make them independent from township trustees and improve access to justice. Plan C suggests changes that should be made regardless of whether plans A or B are adopted. The first two plans would require statutory changes; Plan C could be adopted without statutory or rule changes.

Baker said they proposed three plans because much of Plan A has already been suggested but never implemented by the Legislature, and they want to make sure some reform happens. Plan B was suggested by the small claims judges.

“We think Plan C is very good. It will have a big impact on how the court is operated,” Barteau said.

Plan C outlines court management and procedure reforms. It requires court employees be easily identifiable by litigants, dictates when the judge shall appear before the litigants, and mandates settlement agreements receive judicial review before approval. Under this plan, township judges would be provided consistent continuing legal education opportunities and court forms would be uniform and avoid legalese.

Litigants would be advised at the earliest point possible in the case about their right to request a change in venue. Plan C also suggested the creation of a small claims clinic at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law to allow law students to represent defendants.

Under plans A and B, the judges would become full-time judicial officers and be subject to the public reporting requirements for income from extrajudicial activities, and all appeals would go directly to the Court of Appeals. In Plan A, Marion County would fund the small claims division created under the Superior Court and the small claims division’s jurisdiction would include traffic infractions.

Under Plan B, townships would continue to be responsible for funding the courts, but the courts would create their own budgets that would be approved by the township boards, and the courts would maintain sole control over all court funds. The plan also dictates that the Supreme Court’s Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure should adopt a rule on township court venue to end forum shopping so that the defendant must be sued in the township where he or she lives or where the transaction or incident occurred.

The report was sent to the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, which has the option to take any action on these proposals. The report and appendix are available on the court’s website.

 

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  2. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  3. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  4. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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