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Commission on Courts ponders money issues

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Money matters took up the most time for an interim legislative committee this morning, as members considered issues delving into the balance between fiscal responsibility and judicial efficiency.

During a three-hour hearing that will likely be its final one of the year, the Commission on Courts considered several topics that included the implementation of a statewide case management system, requests for new judicial officers, and whether the Department of Child Services should have been given more authority by a special session budget provision over juvenile out-of-state placements.

Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, served as acting chair in the absence of Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond. After a morning of testimony and discussion, members decided to recommend the following: that the Automated Record Keeping Fee be increased by $3, as recommended by the commission last year but not adopted by the General Assembly; that legislation be authored to repeal a 2009 special session budget provision giving the DCS more control in deciding whether juveniles should be placed outside of Indiana; that judicial officers be converted in Allen and Marion county courts; and that a new family court be established in Bartholomew County.

Taking up an issue it had approved in 2008, the commission heard testimony from Justice Frank Sullivan about increasing the Automated Record Keeping Fee from $7 to $10, in order to pay for the Supreme Court's Judicial Technology and Automation Committee (JTAC) effort to implement a statewide case management system called Odyssey. The implementation, which was rolled out in trial courts beginning in late 2007, has been put in place in 13 counties and has drawn concerns from some lawmakers and officials at the local level. Commission members approved an identical hike last year, but despite legislative approval it didn't get passed into law and changes in a special session budget resulted in an estimated $700,000 decrease in funding for the project. Members voted 9-1 in favor of the recommendation, with Johnson County Clerk Jill Jackson opposing it.

The commission voted 9-0 in favor of converting an Allen Circuit hearing officer to a magistrate role, which would shift some of the federally paid salary to the state level. Allen Circuit Judge Tom Felts abstained from the vote, and the voting members stipulated that the approval be subject to available funding. Judges from the Marion Superior Court requested that all of its commissioners be converted to magistrates, and that the switch be paid for using a $35 fee already charged in traffic citation cases and paid to the state. Commission members voted unanimously in favor of it. The commission voted unanimously in favor of Bartholomew Circuit Judge Stephen Heimann's request for an additional Superior Court judge for a new family court, which would take on the duties of a current commissioner hearing Title IV D cases and partially paid for by the federal government.

Taking up an issue it had discussed during its first October meeting, the commission voted for lawmakers to repeal a provision enacted during its special session budget, H.E.A. 1001, which gave the DCS additional say instead of juvenile judges about out-of-state placements. Eight members voted in favor of the repeal, Rep. Kathy Richardson, R-Noblesville, voted against it, and Michael Kruk abstained.

Commission members voted unanimously on an issue raised by Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard, who requested that Indiana's magistrates be able to serve as senior judges. That isn't currently done, but the chief justice and the Indiana Judges Association are proposing it as a way to help keep up with growing trial court caseloads, specifically because the number of filings hit 2 million for the first time ever last year.

The commission also decided to recommend legislation establishing a generic problem-solving court structure for the state, which would involve various types of courts and give oversight to the Indiana Judicial Conference in setting standards and operational procedures. Commission members also took written testimony but didn't vote on the issue of statute of limitation for asbestos-related litigation. Commission chair Larson has the final decision on whether another hearing will be held Oct. 27, according to Bray, and that decision hasn't yet been made.

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