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Court commission OKs new judicial officer requests

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The Commission on Courts held its final meeting on Thursday, voting in support of new judicial officers for a handful of Indiana counties and agreeing to send those recommendations on to state lawmakers for consideration.

Members of the interim legislative study committee discussed the state judiciary’s strategic plan on court reform that is gradually being implemented through court rule and legislative action, including new laws that were passed during the most recent Indiana General Assembly session allowing for jurisdictional consolidation and unification in local court systems. They also discussed probation officer salaries, but didn’t take any action on those items.

The committee voted in favor of new judicial officer requests that have come before the panel in years past: converting the county-paid Allen Circuit hearing officer to a state-paid magistrate, and a new magistrate in Bartholomew, Hamilton, and Johnson counties. All of those requests had been approved by the commission a year ago, but failed during the 2010-2011 legislative session because of money concerns.

The committee also supported two new magistrates for Hendricks Superior Court and adding a new judge in Owen County, though for the latter that new judge wouldn’t start until 2015 in order to avoid financial impact on the upcoming budget cycle.

Members also heard and discussed a request from Marion Circuit Court to convert one of the existing four paternity commissioners that are paid by the county to a state-paid magistrate. Commissioner Mark Renner presented the idea on behalf of Circuit Judge Lou Rosenberg, who reported that weighted caseload data shows the court is the busiest in the state and the conversion is needed so that one of the existing judicial officers can take on a supervisory role.

Renner said that the Marion Superior courts as well as other Circuit Courts statewide have the ability to appoint magistrates, but Marion Circuit does not. The conversion is also needed in order to address the perception issues that he said currently exists, with four equal commissioner positions.

This would essentially involve making one of those four commissioners a magistrate, so that they are paid by the state instead of the county. Renner said current commissioners earn $112,000 from the county and the estimated cost of a new magistrate would be $130,000 – meaning the state would be responsible for the difference of about $17,000.

The committee voted in support of the request, with only Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, objecting. Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said he saw the need for the new magistrate, while Randolph said he didn’t see what benefit the state would receive from paying for that magistrate – especially since the Circuit judge already has the ability to put one of the existing commissioners in charge without any change from the Legislature.

“You get the perception, and we get the debt,” he told Renner during the meeting.

The commission voted to approve the final report that will be sent to the General Assembly, subject to its completion by the committee’s staff attorney and subsequent review by members.

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