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Court orders mandate for full parole hearing

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a prisoner's pro se action for a mandate requiring all five parole board members to vote on his parole eligibility, ruling the prisoner's case was supported by Indiana statute.

In Kevin S. Varner v. Indiana Parole Board, No. 45A04-0812-CR-693, the Court of Appeals first had to determine whether the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction over Kevin Varner's mandate action, and then it had to decide whether the mandate action stated a claim upon which relief could be granted.

Only four out of five parole board members voted on whether Varner should be granted parole and the vote resulted in a tie. Because three or more members didn't vote to grant him parole, his parole was denied. Wanting the fifth board member to cast his vote, Varner filed a mandate action in Lake Superior Court alleging the board had a duty under Indiana Code Section 11-13-3-3(b) to determine his eligibility based on a five-person vote. The trial court dismissed the action claiming it had no jurisdiction over the parole board.

The Court of Appeals reviewed the dismissal of the action under the standards of lack of subject matter jurisdiction and pursuant to prescreening statutes because it was unclear why the trial court dismissed the action. In its subject matter jurisdiction review, the appellate court ruled Varner's mandate action fell within the general scope of authority conferred upon the trial court by the constitution or statute, wrote Judge Margret Robb. Because I.C. Section 4-21.5-2-5(6) precludes judicial review of an agency action related to an offender within the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction, a mandate action would provide Varner an adequate remedy at law. Varner doesn't challenge the board's decision to grant or deny his parole; he challenges that the decision is to be made by the full, five-member board.

Under the prescreening statutes, the appellate court ruled based on previous caselaw that his mandate action states a claim upon which relief can be granted. His action is based on a clear, statutory requirement and his relief can be granted by having the full, five-member board vote on his eligibility for parole.

Instead of remanding the case for the trial court to determine whether Indiana Code requires a five-member vote, the appellate court addressed the issue on the merits to promote judicial economy.

The term in the statute "final decision" isn't statutorily defined, but the appellate court agreed with Varner that it means the decision to grant or deny parole, wrote the judge. The term "full parole board" also isn't statutorily defined, but other sections of Indiana code establish that the parole board consists of five members appointed by the governor. The Court of Appeals ruled Varner clearly and unquestionably demonstrated that he is entitled to a mandate, wrote Judge Robb.

The appellate court remanded the case to the trial court to enter judgment in Varner's favor and issue the mandate requiring that all five board members cast their vote on his parole eligibility.

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