Seated alone at the table in front of the Indiana General Assembly’s Commission on Courts, Vanderburgh Circuit Judge David Kiely recently asked for a new magistrate in his court.
Unusual this year is that Vanderburgh County is the only county to come before the commission making such a request. Equally unusual will be if Vanderburgh County has to ask only once.
The Legislative Council assigned the Commission on Courts the sole duty of reviewing the county’s appeal for a new judicial officer. In previous years, counties have had to come before the panel for several years in a row before a bill adding a judge or magistrate passed through the Legislature.
Getting the commission’s recommendation, while not required, is viewed as giving the county’s request more weight in the Statehouse. However, even with the commission’s approval, whether a bill passes depends on the condition of the state budget.
Commission chair Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, acknowledged counties can get tired of repeatedly having to ask for more judges and magistrates only to then be denied by the Legislature.
“It’s frustrating to that county that’s asked for it, but to us as legislators, our primary job is to pass a balanced budget,” Steele said. “… If we can’t afford it, we can’t afford it. It’s easy to say no when you’re broke.”
Kiely is confident the commission and the Legislature will give their thumbs up to adding a magistrate.
He pointed out that although the caseload has grown substantially, Vanderburgh Circuit Court has been operating for several decades with one judge and one magistrate. Currently the court’s two judicial officers are handling the work of four.
“I’m optimistic that the commission will recommend the request for the new judicial officer for the Circuit Court,” Kiely said. “I’m very optimistic that our local representatives will push the bill and pass it.”
‘Numbers aren’t going down’
On average, Vanderburgh Circuit Court handles 1,600 major felony cases each year on top of 750 major civil cases. Trials start at 8 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while other matters are handled in court daily at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Two-thirds of all felony cases in Vanderburgh County appear in the Circuit Court.
“I truly enjoy the court and the workload,” Kiely said, “but the numbers aren’t going down.”
The Evansville Bar Association board of directors was surprised at Vanderburgh County’s caseload, said Scott Wylie, association president.
Local attorneys have complained about the “fairly significant delay” in getting a hearing and a trial. The understaffing and rising demand are apparent every day, but the board was still shocked by the state data.
According to the Division of State Court Administration, Vanderburgh County was the 4th highest in Indiana in terms of severity of need for more judicial officers. The 2012 Weighted Caseload Measures shows the 14 judges and magistrates in Vanderburgh Superior and Circuit courts doing the work of just over 22.
Vanderburgh County is expected to move into 3rd place soon because that slot’s current holder, Johnson County, got its request granted for a new judge through the General Assembly.
In the Circuit Court, Kiely and Magistrate Judge Kelli Fink each handle a weighted caseload of 1.93 which equates to enough work for 3.87 judicial officers, state statistics show.
Seeing the hard numbers and knowing the demand firsthand prompted the bar association board to write a letter of support for the new magistrate.
The delays in getting into court can create more difficulties or compound the current problems for the litigants, Wylie said. For example, landlords can go months without rent, and litigants can get pushed into personal bankruptcy while waiting to get before a judge.
Such a situation, Wylie said, is especially frustrating for attorneys who want to help their clients but can do nothing about the wait.
Kiely maintained the Circuit Court does not want people to have to wait and is working to prevent that from happening. He said the backlog has not resulted in individuals being denied due process.
“I truly believe we are one of the most efficient courts in the state,” he said. “We’ve just reached a point where we need another judicial officer.”
When Hendricks Superior Judge Robert Freese testified before the commission in 2012, he told the legislators his county had made the request for additional magistrates for the past two or three years.
Freese was not alone. Prior reports highlight counties appearing year after year, especially during the economic recession, requesting new judges and magistrates.
The commission typically approves the requests, although Steele and Rep. Kathy Richardson, R-Noblesville, maintain the panel is not a rubber stamp. Along with articulating the need for another judicial officer, the commission wants to know if the county council and the local bar association support the request, and if the county is committed to building any additional space that is needed for the new judge or magistrate.
Since the Division of State Court Administration has been providing the weighted case-load measures, the commission has a better understanding what is happening across the state, Richardson said. The reports allow the commission to compare the caseloads between counties.
Fiscal concerns and tight state budgets in recent years are mostly blamed for the courts not getting their requests fulfilled. With a little breathing room opening in the state’s finances, Steele was able to get his measure, Senate Enrolled Act 486, approved during the 2013 session. This bill provided Hamilton, Hendricks and Owen counties with new judicial officers.
“Oftentimes, a court may appear before this committee on two or three occasions and it’s almost like a rite of passage. You’ve been here three times now it’s time to do it,” Steele said. “But it always comes down to budget, if they have enough money for it or not.”
The state picks up the tab for the salaries and benefits of the judges and magistrates. According to the fiscal analysis of Steele’s bill by the Legislative Services Agency, the salary for magistrates in fiscal year 2013 was $104,064 while for judges it was $130,080.
Freese did not criticize the process that counties have to go through to get new judicial officers.
“I’ve been involved in the legislative process a long, long time,” he said. “You kind of know how they work. You just know eventually things move in the right manner and maybe that is the way things need to be.”
County budget considerations influenced Kiely to request a magistrate.
Adding a judge would require the county to pay for an additional court reporter, bailiff and riding bailiff which could boost the expenditures by $250,000 to $300,000 annually. Conversely, for a magistrate, the county would only have to provide a yearly salary supplement of $4,000.
At the commission’s July meeting, Kiely said he has the support of the bar association and noted space is available in the courts building for the new magistrate. He still has to appear before the Vanderburgh County Council to get its approval, but Kiely said the council liaison has told him council members would also support the request.
The Commission on Courts has yet to vote on Kiely’s request. Steele delayed the vote because not all the commission members were present at the meeting.•