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Judge sues to prevent local court closure

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If one east-central Indiana prosecutor had a time machine, he might travel back to the start of the year and reconsider whether it truly matters if the judge on the Knightstown Court is not an attorney.

He might not have transferred all misdemeanor cases from the town court because of concern about non-attorneys handling those types of criminal matters. That, in turn, might have prevented a drop in revenue that caused local officials to pursue the court’s closure by Oct. 31.

But all of that happened, and now Town Judge Bart Whitesitt – a non-attorney who’s been on the bench since February – has filed a lawsuit against Knightstown in an attempt to keep the court open, at least temporarily. Henry County Prosecutor Kit Crane is also trying to save the court while adapting to the changing criminal justice landscape.

“Our court has worked for decades,” he said. “But I get it. It’s the 21st century and we are moving on to make sure we have the most qualified people on the bench. I was pretty stubborn about that being the way to go – having lay judges. But it’s hard for me as a prosecutor to argue against the benefit to litigants in having someone trained and educated in that formal discipline able to hear their case.”
 

consolidation-15col.jpg Knightstown Court Judge Bart Whitesitt and his attorney Tony Saunders have filed a lawsuit challenging the closure of the local court by Oct. 31. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

This is an example where Indiana’s most local of courts are experiencing the trickle-down effect of state judiciary efforts to consolidate courts, unify jurisdictions, and require all individuals serving on the bench to have a law license. Some localities have passed ordinances and considered rules requiring law licenses for its city and town judges, and the issue centers on whether non-attorneys are knowledgeable in legal issues that apply even in traffic, infraction, and low-level criminal cases.

Statewide discussion at the start of the year didn’t specifically impact Knightstown Court, which has existed since the 1950s and about a decade ago was one of the highest-grossing courts in the state. But Crane knew the court reform issues were surfacing more frequently throughout Indiana and he expected it would present itself locally at some point.

That happened in January, when longtime Knightstown attorney and Town Judge Hayden Butler announced he was resigning from the court. The Indiana Supreme Court appointed attorney Joseph Lansinger to fill that spot temporarily.

Although the town council soon after passed an ordinance requiring the judge be a Knightstown resident and that any appointee be an attorney, the Henry County Republican Party chair wasn’t obligated to follow that ordinance and appointed Whitesitt, a precinct committeeman, in a caucus.

The county prosecutor saw a potential problem if Judge Whitesitt’s jurisdiction and ability to handle criminal cases ever came under scrutiny because of his lack of a law license. Crane took action, seeing a way to save the local court.

The solution: stop filing misdemeanors in town court, and instead only file civil infractions there. The rest would go to Henry Circuit Court.

“It would be better to have a court in Knightstown that could hear infractions than to have a court that couldn’t hear anything,” Crane said.

But without the misdemeanor cases, the court began to see less revenue as the year went on. The county clerk reported the court’s annual revenue had decreased by about $80,000 from 2009 to 2011 to half of what it had been. The court hours were cut by half in April, with Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m. being the only set time for court. Then, in the summer, local officials voted to close the court at year’s end. The closure timetable was later moved to the end of October. The ordinance that implemented the closure stated it wasn’t in the town’s best interest to supplement the court’s operations with property tax revenue.

If and when the town court closes, thousands of infraction filings, mostly speeding tickets, will follow the misdemeanors that have been transferred to Henry Circuit Judge Bob Witham’s courtroom.

Crane doesn’t want to see the town court’s closure, because of the impact it will have on the county judges who will have less time to devote to felony and other cases before them. It will also impact residents who will have to travel to county court rather than the local courthouse.

Judge Whitesitt filed his suit Sept. 6 to prevent that closure from happening, and New Castle attorney Tony Saunders is representing him.

Specifically, the lawsuit challenges the court’s abolishment on the grounds that Indiana Code 33-35-1-1(a) only allows a town court to be abolished in 2006 and every fourth year – meaning the next possible closure year would be 2014. But Knightstown’s attorney Gregg Morelock reads another provision in that state law to give the council the right to close the court whenever it wants to take that action. He points to I.C. 33-25-1-1(d) that states, “A city or town court in existence on Jan. 1, 1986, may continue in operation until it is abolished by ordinance.”

What happens in Knights-town could influence other local decisions statewide as officials consider court consolidation in the future. Judge Whitesitt hopes for a compromise that would allow the court to stay open for a year to see whether it can be profitable. As of now, he is running unopposed in the Nov. 8 general election for the Knightstown Town Court – which may be a moot point if the court ceases to exist Oct. 31.

No matter the fate of the Knightstown Court, the debate continues about whether all city and town judges should be lawyers.

The state’s Judicial Conference contends local judges are on the front lines and litigants must have the best possible legal representation from everyone at that level. But the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, as well as many lawyers and lay persons who serve as judges, disagree and say this falls under the home rule umbrella and it’s not right to force an area with few attorneys to have to pick one of those to be a judge.

At the end of last year, 37 of the 75 city and town court judges statewide were non-attorneys. Nineteen of the jurisdictions required by law or ordinance that judges have a law license.

Although the Indiana General Assembly considered a bill that would have required those judges to be attorneys, lawmakers failed to pass legislation this past year that would’ve required the change.

Even if the Knightstown Court stays open, Crane predicts that the necessity of town courts will eventually be debated in light of state judiciary actions. He might have done things differently earlier this year, but he knows it probably wouldn’t change the eventual fate of the local court.

“I believed the likelihood of scrutiny on our town court would be eliminated or reduced,” he said about his decision. “But I did not anticipate the increased financial burden to the town or the town council’s decision to abolish the court. Still, I suspect that it’s correct to say that regardless of local events, we would still be where we are now – eventually. We have a military phrase that you have to adjust fire … and that’s what we’re doing. Adjusting to the way things are.”•
 

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