Budget-busting judges

August 29, 2008
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From IL reporter Michael Hoskins, who attended the Aug. 28 Commission on Courts meeting:

Financial woes between courts and county officials can be found statewide, even nationally, in these tough economic times. Chances are it’s going to get worse.

That’s why a former Montgomery County official spoke to the Commission on Courts this week about judicial mandates. He was a county councilor when the judges there issued a mandate hiking the salaries of court employees; the case was ultimately decided by the Indiana Supreme Court. In the case In Re: Order for Mandate of Funds, Montgomery County Council. V. Hon. Thomas K. Milligan, et al., justices struck middle ground by encouraging a compromise between the county judges and officials.

Before the commission Thursday, Republican Sen. Phil Boots - who was in county government during the Montgomery mandate - noted how state lawmakers haven’t written a law or given sole power to county councils and that judges are crossing the separation of powers line by issuing mandates on money out of their control.

“If this continues…. judges could be budget-busters by mandating unreasonable amounts of money,” he said, noting that property tax changes stemming from recently adopted law will add extra burden to county coffers and likely result in more mandates.

Other county officials said they were skeptical about how special judges and ultimately appellate judges can fairly decide these mandate issues involving fellow judges. They also mentioned how attorneys are often reluctant to take on these mandating judges for of fear of retaliation when they later have to appear before those jurists. One Hendricks County official said it seems like counties are playing with a stacked deck.

Boots’ suggestion: either lawmakers should take away judges’ mandate powers, or courts should become state-governed so the Indiana Attorney General’s Office can represent any jurists in mandate actions that go to court. Recent legislation to make that happen has failed.

Chief Justice Randall Shepard weighed in, pointing out that Indiana courts have the thought that T.R. 60.5 “is printed on paper, not carved in stone.” It’s meant to create an environment where courts and counties can talk out and work through their issues. But the chief justice also supports a move to change the state’s court structure, such as having the state take over courts. That’s a topic that could be gaining more steam in coming months and might be brought up during the next legislative session.

In the meantime, the Indiana Judges Association and Indiana Association of Cities and Towns have been talking the past year about revising the mandate rule. A six-person committee has met once and hopes to meet again soon. Seems like there’s support from many angles, but the home rule and county control has not fully surfaced yet and will likely make the debate lively.

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