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4 Indiana justices testify on state budget

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Four of the Indiana Supreme Court justices testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee Monday night, talking to lawmakers specifically about the need for an appellate case management system, more funding for public defense, and continued fairness in how judicial officers and prosecutors are paid throughout the state.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard has been traveling the state and wasn’t able to attend the committee hearing, but his four colleagues on the court – Justices Steven David, Brent Dickson, Robert Rucker, and Frank Sullivan – made statements and answered questions from lawmakers, following up on a budget proposal submitted to the State Budget Director in October.

No committee decisions were made, but the justices offered sympathy for the state’s tough fiscal situation. They gave an overview of the court’s operations and areas that need legislative attention, according to court public information officer Kathryn Dolan.

Justice Sullivan told lawmakers that the judiciary’s portion is only about 1 percent of the state’s total $14.1 billion budget per year, but that the court has mostly straight-lined its monetary requests from the current two-year budget. Specifically, the justices mentioned the need for a new appellate case management system, increased funding for Indiana public defenders, and asked for lawmakers to respect the current model for how judicial officers and prosecutors are paid.

On the appellate CMS, Justice Sullivan told lawmakers that the state’s highest courts need to enter the 21st century rather than using a case management system from the 1980s that still has an “old, green screen.” Paying for that new system requires about $3 million in new funding for the two-year period, according to Justice Sullivan’s testimony, with that breaking down to about $1.9 million the first year and $1.1 the second year. As a result of a new system, he told lawmakers the courts expect to save on personnel for three full-time positions and three part-time staff in the clerk’s office in 2014 and two additional full-time positions starting in 2019.

Justice David spoke about the salaries, which account for about $97 million in the state budget. He told lawmakers how the recently passed Ways and Means Committee budget prohibits judges, prosecutors, state-funded magistrates and deputy prosecutors from receiving any pay adjustments for two years regardless of whether state employees get an increase – a move that specifically reverses a 2005 statutory change to how trial judge compensation is tied to those state worker hikes.

“We seek no special treatment for the men and women who serve as judicial officers and prosecutors across this great state and who administer the people’s business in the local courthouses,” he said. “We only ask that they be treated in the upcoming biennium in the same way that the legislature and governor intended and agreed that they would be treated in the 2005 legislation.”

Justice Rucker testified about the public defense funding, which accounts for about $13 million currently. In the budget proposal submitted last fall, the court asked for a $3.15 million annual increase in public defense funding because of five additional counties – Delaware, Hamilton, Huntington, Lawrence, and Marshall – that will qualify for reimbursement at the start of the next biennium.  The state reimburses some of the defense costs for counties meeting certain standards, and the court says the general fund appropriation needed is $16 million rather than $12.85 million included in the budget passed by the House Ways and Means Committee.

“We were told they would do their best with us,” Dolan said.

The justices’ testimony came just as a 35-day walkout by Indiana House Democrats ended, leaving five weeks left for lawmakers to not only craft a budget but also address legislative redistricting and hundreds of other pending bills. Approximately 334 amendments had been filed by Tuesday morning on the massive budget bill, House Bill 1001, and an initial review didn’t clearly pinpoint any specific court-focused changes that might be considered.

Lawmakers face an April 29 deadline, and if they aren’t able to agree on a budget they could return for a special session.
 

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