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Appeals court expansion bill stays alive

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Legislation that would create a new sixth panel for the Indiana Court of Appeals is moving through the legislative committee cycle, even though lawmakers doubt it will pass this session.

The Senate Judiciary Committee met this morning and discussed Senate Bill 35, which proposes an additional appellate judge panel for the first time since 1991. The legislation would create a sixth district for the appellate court, boosting the number of judges from 15 to 18 starting in January 2010. Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, sponsored the bill drafted by the interim legislative Commission on Courts, which supports the measure. The price tag comes at more than $1.3 in its first year and $2.2 million following that, according to a fiscal impact statement.

The notion of expanding the state's second highest appellate court has been discussed for years and been before lawmakers many times in the recent years. Chief Judge John Baker told committee members that an emergency need for the additional panel doesn't exist at the moment, but an ever-increasing caseload means that judges are able to spend less time on each case and eventually the need will become a reality.

"You need to decide whether you want us to spend more time on each case or not," he told committee members.

Chief Judge Baker told lawmakers the court handled nearly 3,000 cases last year, achieved a clearance rate of 100 percent, and currently maintains an average turnaround time for decisions came within about 1½ months. He's proud that the Indiana Court of Appeals can boast being the most efficient court of its kind in the country.

More resources would allow the court to continue its outreach efforts and give judges more time for each case, the chief judge said.

But the bill's sponsor - who chairs the Judiciary Committee as well as the Commission on Courts - pointed out that the General Assembly may not support the measure because of the tough economic times and the difficult budget-balancing job it's facing.

"This has been around awhile and we want to keep it alive, but I'm not optimistic," Bray said, echoing some concerns from other members who raised questions about the timing given the economic state of affairs.

But "in the spirit of longevity," committee members voted unanimously to forward the bill on to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.

Committee members also forwarded on several other pieces of legislation, including Senate Bill 121 to increase the automated record keeping fee from $7 to $10 to pay for statewide implementation of a case management system; Senate Bill 77 that gives Allen Circuit Court a second magistrate in exchange for a hearing officer spot; Senate Bill 43 revising probate code study commission terms; and Senate Bill 122 that addresses several court issues such as private judges and court alcohol and drug service programs.

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