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Chief justice: courts handling the tough times

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The recession has hit Indiana's judiciary just as it has everyone else, but the state's chief justice said record numbers of cases are slamming the courts and the General Assembly can help ease that caseload.

In his annual State of the Judiciary this afternoon, Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard appeared before the General Assembly to update lawmakers not only about the judiciary's work in the past year but also about ways to move forward despite the economic and budget woes.

"Some of these changes stand well on their own, but others are things I wish we didn't have to do, but there are lots of people in government making changes they wish they didn't have to make," he said.

The chief justice encouraged lawmakers to support any measures designed to help the judiciary collect all revenue that the law says is due from court operations so that it can go directly to state and county budgets that need it. Because requests for new courts and judges just aren't reasonable because of the economic state, the chief justice urged lawmakers to support legislation that would allow retired magistrates to also work as senior judges to ease local caseloads.

Additionally, the chief justice recommended that lawmakers support legislation that would create a framework for new veterans' courts, problem-solving courts that would allow the judiciary to better deal with those with special disabilities stemming from military service pressures. This would mimic what's already been done with drug and re-entry courts, he said.

"This bill has no fiscal note at all, and indeed the net of these three ideas is revenue positive," he said, adding to a message that the judiciary will do all that it can to assist in these tough times.

As a way to save money, the judiciary is already stopping a practice it's had since 1817: mailing appellate decisions to attorneys. Instead, the courts are sending them by e-mail only, which will save $39,000 this year alone, he said. The judiciary has also decided in the past week to postpone for 2010 the regional trial judge seminars conducted each spring, which will help save about $16,000. And the courts aren't filling some senior staff positions within State Court Administration to help save $227,000.

"I know these numbers are modest in comparison to the numbers Gov. Daniels mentioned last night (during his State of the State address), but the whole court system is a very small part of the budget," the chief justice said.

Chief Justice Shepard also pointed to areas the judiciary has worked on during 2009: a statewide electronic protective order registry system is enacted in every county, and hundreds of law enforcement agencies have used the e-citation system implemented in the past year. He also pointed out the 1,112 attorneys and judges who've been trained to help in mortgage foreclosure cases, and that the judiciary will soon put facilitators into foreclosure-settlement sessions to help. In addition, the number of new volunteers trained as court-appointed special advocates in 2009 increased 26 percent over 2008 .

He also spoke about how the state's judicial branch is about ready to unveil new statewide jury instructions that will be easier for non-attorneys to understand and how a statewide assessment tool for juvenile offenders in the Department of Correction has been adopted.

"Even as our team of trial judges moves ahead planning for our future, in place after place, judges and lawyers and court staff have managed in the here and now to summon the energy, the focus, the tough-mindedness to ramp up the system even in the midst of crisis," he said.

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