News that the federal courthouse in Terre Haute is being considered for closure brings a sense of déjà vu to the legal community.
A federal judicial committee has placed the Terre Haute Division of the Southern District of Indiana on its list of potential courthouse closures.
Closure of the courthouse has come up several times in recent years, including in the early 2000s when the 7th Circuit Judicial Conference considered whether the courthouse should close instead of trying to relocate after the United States Post Office – which shared space with the court and wanted to expand – decided not to renew the court’s lease.
The space and facilities committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference also considered closing the courthouse in 2006, placing it on the same list the court finds itself on again this year. The decision to build a new courthouse spared its closure six years ago.
Judicial officials are considering the closure of 60 courthouses in 29 states to cut costs. There are 674 courthouses and facilities across the country. The decision on what courts could close is far from finalized. Many connected to the Terre Haute location believe the busy docket and proximity to a federal penitentiary will save the court from the chopping block, but the possibility is generating a new wave of discussion about the court’s importance.
“I don’t want to cause concern among the bar, because I do think it’s highly unlikely that it would close,” said Chief Judge Richard Young of the Southern District of Indiana. “It’s important to make sure this is not blown out of proportion. Budget pressures facing the entire judiciary and government have caused an examination of all expenses and agencies, but this is just an initial part of the review. Just because it’s on the list doesn’t mean it’s going to be closed.”
Those facilities made the list because they do not have a full-time resident judge and instead rely on part-time magistrates or judges who travel from other larger divisions. The practice of reviewing courts without a resident judge goes back to 1997, according to spokesman David Sellers with the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.
Critics say closing the courthouses could make it more difficult for people to get to court proceedings, particularly in the smaller, rural areas where many of the targeted courts are located. Annual operating costs and rent for the 60 listed facilities total more than $16 million, and Sellers said those expenses need decreased. But he said it’s too early to speculate how much money could be saved or how many jobs could be lost by the possible closures.
Court facilities on the list were ranked based on several categories such as cost, usage and location. A facility in Beaufort, S.C., tops the list, followed by the federal court site in Parkersburg, W.Va., and one in Harrison, Ark.
Meanwhile, the Terre Haute facility – which opened in 2009 at 921 Ohio St. after relocating from another site – is number 19 on the list.
The space and facilities committee sent this list to the 13 Circuit judicial councils for review in February, according to Sellers. The councils gave feedback to the committee in mid-April, allowing committee members to revise the list and forward its report to the U.S. Judicial Conference. Whether any courts close is up to the conference and would likely be decided at its September meeting. The U.S. Judicial Conference will look at factors such as caseloads and proximity to federal prisons.
Now, with Terre Haute again on the list, the 7th Circuit Judicial Conference has opposed the closure for reasons that include the new building.
Southern District Clerk Laura Briggs said the closure criteria gives the Terre Haute courthouse a fairly high “effectiveness” score of 383, considerably different than other courts that have scores in the double digits or even negative numbers.
The Terre Haute division is 78 miles from the Indianapolis courthouse, the next closest courthouse in the Southern District. The Terre Haute building is home to two clerk’s office staff and one probation officer. Southern District figures from fiscal year 2011 show more than 2,750 civil, criminal and bankruptcy cases were filed in that division, with nearly 120 trial hours between the District and bankruptcy judges, 43.4 in-court hours for the part-time magistrate and 157 prisoner productions by the U.S. Marshals Service. Each year on average, magistrates use the courthouse 40 days, with half of that by the part-time magistrate; the bankruptcy judges spend 50 days there.
The proximity to the high-security federal prison in Terre Haute also makes the location unique because it’s where federal death row inmates are housed, Briggs said.
“The court believes that the continued operation of the Terre Haute courthouse is imperative to the fair and effective administration of justice for the citizens and attorneys in western Indiana,” she said.
Terre Haute attorney Scott Kyrouac, immediate past-president of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana, said the court closure would have the biggest impact on the litigants. The local economy is poor and has a disproportionate number of debtors who need bankruptcy services in particular, he pointed out. They would be forced to go to Indianapolis.
State courts would also be impacted, as many of the federal cases in Terre Haute are diversity jurisdiction matters transferred from a state court from either Indiana or Illinois. An Indiana resident injured in a serious accident in Illinois has the option of filing a cause of action in the local federal court in Terre Haute. But without that close proximity, those actions may be limited for people who can’t or won’t travel to Indianapolis.
“To require them to travel almost two hours to a different federal court would place an unfair burden on such individuals,” Kyrouac said.
This second consideration for closure by the U.S. Judicial Conference has brought up questions about whether it might be time for a full-time resident judge at that courthouse just to keep it off the list in the future.
The consensus: there’s no need.
Statistics, economic realities, political practicalities, and the caliber of traveling judges make that unnecessary, the lawyers and judges say.
“The simple answer is that there isn’t enough here to justify a full-timer, but there is certainly enough to do that visiting judges can meet the needs,” said attorney and part-time Magistrate Judge Craig McKee.
He – like other area attorneys – believes it’s likely that the division won’t close. Still, McKee thinks it’s important for the legal community to discuss options about the impact and significance of that location.
McKee said the long-term lease for the courthouse and caseloads weigh in Terre Haute’s favor in keeping the court open, particularly because bankruptcy matters and individual felony defendants arising from large drug-conspiracy cases and the federal prison nearby make up the docket.
“Long before I was appointed to this position, I was working with colleagues in the local bar to preserve a federal court division in Terre Haute,” he said. “It’s not nearly as dire as the list would indicate, but this is highly important to the community and to the bar.”•