ILNews

Judge sues to prevent local court closure

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

If one east-central Indiana prosecutor had a time machine, he might travel back to the start of the year and reconsider whether it truly matters if the judge on the Knightstown Court is not an attorney.

He might not have transferred all misdemeanor cases from the town court because of concern about non-attorneys handling those types of criminal matters. That, in turn, might have prevented a drop in revenue that caused local officials to pursue the court’s closure by Oct. 31.

But all of that happened, and now Town Judge Bart Whitesitt – a non-attorney who’s been on the bench since February – has filed a lawsuit against Knightstown in an attempt to keep the court open, at least temporarily. Henry County Prosecutor Kit Crane is also trying to save the court while adapting to the changing criminal justice landscape.

“Our court has worked for decades,” he said. “But I get it. It’s the 21st century and we are moving on to make sure we have the most qualified people on the bench. I was pretty stubborn about that being the way to go – having lay judges. But it’s hard for me as a prosecutor to argue against the benefit to litigants in having someone trained and educated in that formal discipline able to hear their case.”
 

consolidation-15col.jpg Knightstown Court Judge Bart Whitesitt and his attorney Tony Saunders have filed a lawsuit challenging the closure of the local court by Oct. 31. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

This is an example where Indiana’s most local of courts are experiencing the trickle-down effect of state judiciary efforts to consolidate courts, unify jurisdictions, and require all individuals serving on the bench to have a law license. Some localities have passed ordinances and considered rules requiring law licenses for its city and town judges, and the issue centers on whether non-attorneys are knowledgeable in legal issues that apply even in traffic, infraction, and low-level criminal cases.

Statewide discussion at the start of the year didn’t specifically impact Knightstown Court, which has existed since the 1950s and about a decade ago was one of the highest-grossing courts in the state. But Crane knew the court reform issues were surfacing more frequently throughout Indiana and he expected it would present itself locally at some point.

That happened in January, when longtime Knightstown attorney and Town Judge Hayden Butler announced he was resigning from the court. The Indiana Supreme Court appointed attorney Joseph Lansinger to fill that spot temporarily.

Although the town council soon after passed an ordinance requiring the judge be a Knightstown resident and that any appointee be an attorney, the Henry County Republican Party chair wasn’t obligated to follow that ordinance and appointed Whitesitt, a precinct committeeman, in a caucus.

The county prosecutor saw a potential problem if Judge Whitesitt’s jurisdiction and ability to handle criminal cases ever came under scrutiny because of his lack of a law license. Crane took action, seeing a way to save the local court.

The solution: stop filing misdemeanors in town court, and instead only file civil infractions there. The rest would go to Henry Circuit Court.

“It would be better to have a court in Knightstown that could hear infractions than to have a court that couldn’t hear anything,” Crane said.

But without the misdemeanor cases, the court began to see less revenue as the year went on. The county clerk reported the court’s annual revenue had decreased by about $80,000 from 2009 to 2011 to half of what it had been. The court hours were cut by half in April, with Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m. being the only set time for court. Then, in the summer, local officials voted to close the court at year’s end. The closure timetable was later moved to the end of October. The ordinance that implemented the closure stated it wasn’t in the town’s best interest to supplement the court’s operations with property tax revenue.

If and when the town court closes, thousands of infraction filings, mostly speeding tickets, will follow the misdemeanors that have been transferred to Henry Circuit Judge Bob Witham’s courtroom.

Crane doesn’t want to see the town court’s closure, because of the impact it will have on the county judges who will have less time to devote to felony and other cases before them. It will also impact residents who will have to travel to county court rather than the local courthouse.

Judge Whitesitt filed his suit Sept. 6 to prevent that closure from happening, and New Castle attorney Tony Saunders is representing him.

Specifically, the lawsuit challenges the court’s abolishment on the grounds that Indiana Code 33-35-1-1(a) only allows a town court to be abolished in 2006 and every fourth year – meaning the next possible closure year would be 2014. But Knightstown’s attorney Gregg Morelock reads another provision in that state law to give the council the right to close the court whenever it wants to take that action. He points to I.C. 33-25-1-1(d) that states, “A city or town court in existence on Jan. 1, 1986, may continue in operation until it is abolished by ordinance.”

What happens in Knights-town could influence other local decisions statewide as officials consider court consolidation in the future. Judge Whitesitt hopes for a compromise that would allow the court to stay open for a year to see whether it can be profitable. As of now, he is running unopposed in the Nov. 8 general election for the Knightstown Town Court – which may be a moot point if the court ceases to exist Oct. 31.

No matter the fate of the Knightstown Court, the debate continues about whether all city and town judges should be lawyers.

The state’s Judicial Conference contends local judges are on the front lines and litigants must have the best possible legal representation from everyone at that level. But the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, as well as many lawyers and lay persons who serve as judges, disagree and say this falls under the home rule umbrella and it’s not right to force an area with few attorneys to have to pick one of those to be a judge.

At the end of last year, 37 of the 75 city and town court judges statewide were non-attorneys. Nineteen of the jurisdictions required by law or ordinance that judges have a law license.

Although the Indiana General Assembly considered a bill that would have required those judges to be attorneys, lawmakers failed to pass legislation this past year that would’ve required the change.

Even if the Knightstown Court stays open, Crane predicts that the necessity of town courts will eventually be debated in light of state judiciary actions. He might have done things differently earlier this year, but he knows it probably wouldn’t change the eventual fate of the local court.

“I believed the likelihood of scrutiny on our town court would be eliminated or reduced,” he said about his decision. “But I did not anticipate the increased financial burden to the town or the town council’s decision to abolish the court. Still, I suspect that it’s correct to say that regardless of local events, we would still be where we are now – eventually. We have a military phrase that you have to adjust fire … and that’s what we’re doing. Adjusting to the way things are.”•
 

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Indiana State Bar Association

Indianapolis Bar Association

Evansville Bar Association

Allen County Bar Association

Indiana Lawyer on Facebook

facebook
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. All the lawyers involved in this don't add up to a hill of beans; mostly yes-men punching their tickets for future advancement. REMF types. Window dressing. Who in this mess was a real hero? the whistleblower that let the public know about the torture, whom the US sent to Jail. John Kyriakou. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/26/us/ex-officer-for-cia-is-sentenced-in-leak-case.html?_r=0 Now, considering that Torture is Illegal, considering that during Vietnam a soldier was court-martialed and imprisoned for waterboarding, why has the whistleblower gone to jail but none of the torturers have been held to account? It's amazing that Uncle Sam's sunk lower than Vietnam. But that's where we're at. An even more unjust and pointless war conducted in an even more bogus manner. this from npr: "On Jan. 21, 1968, The Washington Post ran a front-page photo of a U.S. soldier supervising the waterboarding of a captured North Vietnamese soldier. The caption said the technique induced "a flooding sense of suffocation and drowning, meant to make him talk." The picture led to an Army investigation and, two months later, the court martial of the soldier." Today, the US itself has become lawless.

  2. "Brain Damage" alright.... The lunatic is on the grass/ The lunatic is on the grass/ Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs/ Got to keep the loonies on the path.... The lunatic is in the hall/ The lunatics are in my hall/ The paper holds their folded faces to the floor/ And every day the paper boy brings more/ And if the dam breaks open many years too soon/ And if there is no room upon the hill/ And if your head explodes with dark forbodings too/ I'll see you on the dark side of the moon!!!

  3. It is amazing how selectively courts can read cases and how two very similar factpatterns can result in quite different renderings. I cited this very same argument in Brown v. Bowman, lost. I guess it is panel, panel, panel when one is on appeal. Sad thing is, I had Sykes. Same argument, she went the opposite. Her Rooker-Feldman jurisprudence is now decidedly unintelligible.

  4. November, 2014, I was charged with OWI/Endangering a person. I was not given a Breathalyzer test and the arresting officer did not believe that alcohol was in any way involved. I was self-overmedicated with prescription medications. I was taken to local hospital for blood draw to be sent to State Tox Lab. My attorney gave me a cookie-cutter plea which amounts to an ALCOHOL-related charge. Totally unacceptable!! HOW can I get my TOX report from the state lab???

  5. My mother got temporary guardianship of my children in 2012. my husband and I got divorced 2015 the judge ordered me to have full custody of all my children. Does this mean the temporary guardianship is over? I'm confused because my divorce papers say I have custody and he gets visits and i get to claim the kids every year on my taxes. So just wondered since I have in black and white that I have custody if I can go get my kids from my moms and not go to jail?

ADVERTISEMENT