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Courts coping with tough times

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No one needs to tell Johnson Circuit Judge Mark Loyd how tough times are for the state's court system.

For the past couple of years, his county has pushed for a fourth Superior Court it needs to keep up with growing caseloads. The last time a new court was created was 1997, and the local caseloads and dynamics have changed dramatically since then. But despite the need, Judge Loyd and his colleagues reluctantly decided this year to abandon the request for any new judicial officers because everyone's resources are limited.

"What we're experiencing like everyone else in the state is the economy, so what we may want that has any monetary ties will just have to wait," he said. "We're attempting to do whatever we can to stem the tide with other methodologies."

The story in Johnson County is one that illustrates perfectly what Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard emphasized during his annual State of the Judiciary address. Appearing before a joint session of the General Assembly Jan. 20 for the 23rd time since he became the state's top jurist, the chief justice told lawmakers that the courts have coped with the economic challenges during the past year.

Chief Justice Shepard noted the recession has hit the judiciary hard just as it has everyone else, but he highlighted that the courts are already taking steps locally and statewide to continue coping with a record number of cases that slammed the state during 2009.

"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.

On a statewide basis, 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. The bill is HB 1271, which is pending before the General Assembly.

"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 has stopped mailing appellate decisions to attorneys and instead is now e-mailing them in order to save at least $39,000 a year. The judiciary has also decided to postpone for 2010 the regional trial judge seminars conducted each spring, which will help save about $16,000. The courts also 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 (in his State of the State address), but the whole court system is a very small part of the budget," the chief justice said. "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."

Chief Justice Shepard also highlighted 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 initially 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.

"I can tell you that there are plenty in our court system who...even in this dark hour, are unwilling to roll over and play dead," the chief justice said. "They've decided to stand their ground, 'to spend and be spent' in the cause of building and rebuilding a place worthy of the fine name Indiana."

Several lawmakers praised the chief justice and how his court system has responded to the economic issues, but continued doing what's necessary despite the challenges. The same reaction came from state trial judges watching Chief Justice Shepard's speech, saying his words echo what they've been seeing and doing in their communities.

Marion Superior Judge Heather Welch said her county has been trying to come up with solutions to handle rising caseloads with the same number of judicial officers. Rather than requesting new judges, the state's largest county is requesting that its commissioners be converted into magistrates in order to have more jurisdiction and speed up the process. The county would pay for the conversion with its own local fee, and in saving roughly $2 million it could put that money toward the local costs of paying for guardians ad litem.

The county has also been using technology - such as the statewide protective order registry that the chief justice highlighted in his address - to do things more efficiently, Judge Welch said. She hopes to hear soon about a proposal to begin using e-filing for the high-volume mortgage foreclosure and collection cases, in order to speed up the process even more.

She particularly found Chief Justice Shepard's message about the courts collecting all revenue important, since many counties aren't set up to handle that function. But she looks forward to working with her locality on how to do that more effectively.

For Judge Loyd in neighboring Johnson County, the speech highlighted the local choice to stick with the three Superior courts and his own Circuit court, reshuffling money, applying for more grants, and increasing the local volunteer efforts to maximize what's already in place.

"We have good programs in place, and every tool helps," he said. "But there's no one answer and you have to use everything you can get a hold of."

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