Court rules on judicial mandates

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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Trial judges must work with county officials and share the decision making of how court money is spent, the Indiana Supreme Court has reiterated.

A pair of anticipated rulings issued Wednesday shows how the state's high court will step in when those disputes can't be managed locally.

Justice Frank Sullivan issued both decisions for the unanimous court in Clark County Council and Clark County Auditor v. Daniel F. Donahue, Cecile A. Blau, Vicki Carmichael, and Steven M. Fleece, 10S00-0606-CV-199, and In Re: Order for Mandate of Funds; Montgomery County Council v. Hon. Thomas K. Milligan, Hon. David A. Ault and Hon. Peggy Q. Lohorn, 54S00-0611-MF-443, which involved judicial mandates regarding salary and legal resources being allocated at the county level.

Both decisions strike at middle ground encouraging a compromise between county judges and officials, hinting that an unbalanced scale could hinder the overall justice system or damage judicial independence.

In the Montgomery County case, Judges Thomas Milligan, David Ault, and Peggy Lohorn issued a mandate in August 2005 requiring the county council to increase salaries of nine court employees to make them more competitive with court workers in other Indiana counties. The council refused to comply, and a special judge later upheld that mandate and ordered the county to pay about $81,000 in raised salaries, as well as $128,298 in court costs and attorney fees. That special judge wrote that despite repeated attempts by judges in past years to get more funding, the county did not address this need for being competitive.

Justice Sullivan pondered the salary differences in his ruling, finding that a mandate was warranted but the ordered pay hikes retroactive to mid-2005 were too high.

"Should the Montgomery County court employees be paid at or below the low end of these salary ranges, the courts' ability to attract and retain employees would be comparatively weak. On the other hand, salaries at the upper level of these ranges would exceed what is reasonably necessary for Montgomery County courts to be competitive. Further, approval of salaries at the upper level of these ranges would unduly encourage mandates from courts in which employees' salaries are not at the upper level. We believe that salaries near the middle of these ranges achieve what is reasonably necessary to avoid impairment of court operations while appropriately recognizing the extraordinary nature of a mandate."

The county should pay any difference, but the employees do not have to repay the county any excess of that amount, the ruling says. The court also limited the amount of attorney fees from $124,523 to $72,810.29 for the 574.25 hours of attorney work.

Justice Sullivan added interpretation of mandate law - Trial Rule 60.5 - in the Clark County case, on which the court heard arguments in December. It will likely have statewide impact on the way county officials and judges interact with one another in managing court fees, specifically those collected from probationers to help pay for the services they receive.

The county's four elected Circuit and Superior judges filed a suit against the local commissioners, council, and auditor after the county decided to use a all of the annual probation fees to pay salaries and other expenditures without resorting to employee layoffs. The judges sought control of how the money was spent and argued the council overstepped its authority. A special judge later ruled that the council acted improperly.

The council appealed the ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court, which initially ordered the case to mediation last summer. But that failed to settle the dispute, and the case again went to the state justices, who'd been reluctant to hear the case.

In his majority opinion, Justice Sullivan wrote state law is clear on this issue and guides the decision.

"The legislative intent here is unmistakable. The money in the fund may only be used to 'supplement,' i.e., to fund new, or increases in existing, probation services and to fund increases in the salaries of probation officers," he wrote. "It may not be used as the source of funding for probation services previously paid from other sources."

This case is remanded to the trial court with directions that the Clark County council allocate or return to the county adult probation services fund an amount, if any, equal to that expended from the fund for purposes other than to supplement probation services and probation officer salaries.At the end of the ruling, Justice Sullivan noted, "We have been gratified at the extent to which county fiscal bodies and courts throughout our state have been able to cooperate on the use of probation users' fees. Probation departments, persons on probation, and the communities of this state have been the beneficiaries of this cooperation. We have attracted and retained high-quality probation officers by supplementing their salaries and have been able to keep many low-risk offenders who otherwise would have been incarcerated close to their families and in productive employment. We are hopeful that today's decision clarifies the respective roles and responsibilities of the county fiscal bodies and the courts so that this highly productive degree of cooperation continues apace."

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