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Judge wins in mandate action

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A special judge has ruled in favor of St. Joseph Probate Judge Peter Nemeth, who'd issued a judicial mandate earlier this year directing county officials to transfer money for pay raises and improvements for the juvenile justice center.

In a 19-page judgment issued this morning, Valparaiso attorney and special judge William Satterlee ruled that officials must release about $355,000 from the county fund to pay for salary hikes and improvements at the county's Juvenile Justice Center. The ruling says that the funding is not only necessary for the operation of the court and related functions, but that it will not represent a financial burden to the county.

Judge Nemeth had issued a judicial mandate in early February, directing the county council and commissioners to appropriate about $355,000. He'd warned council members during the past year about the mandate possibility, saying he'd use that power if the council didn't approve about $79,000 in raises for his court staff. The council had denied the raises in the past two years, despite Judge Nemeth's emphasis that his employees are paid far less than their counterparts in other county courts and that he could issue the raises without using tax money. Instead, the judge wanted to use probation user fees to give raises to those eight employees.

The other money was set aside after Judge Nemeth had reduced the facility's number of beds late last year from 90 to 63.

As special judge, Satterlee held a two-day hearing on the issue in September and all parties submitted their closing briefs by Oct. 13.

"It's unfortunate that we had to go through this," Judge Nemeth said today. "The money was already there, and all we had to do was transfer it, and it wouldn't have cost the county taxpayers a dime. I don't understand the arbitrary capriciousness of our county officials, but this ruling shows our law is above that."

This mandate follows a September 2007 ruling from the Indiana Supreme Court, which held that trial judges must work with county officials and share the decision-making of how court money is spent. An interim legislative committee studied the issue this past summer and fall, but recommended that the General Assembly should defer any action on Indiana Trial Rule 60.5 while the state's highest court continues to respond by rule adoption.

Judge Nemeth pointed out that his mandate in February came on the same day when the Indiana Supreme Court revised Trial Rule 60.5, which governs judicial mandate cases and allowed for attorneys to serve as special judges rather than another sitting judge. His case was the first to utilize that new rule, he said.

County officials are able to appeal to the state's appellate courts, but the county's legal counsel couldn't immediately be reached to comment on whether that will happen.

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