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Lawmakers resume debate on issues impacting state courts

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Both federal and state lawmakers seem to be letting the clock tick down to the final seconds.

The U.S. Congress averted a government shutdown by reaching a budget deal in the final hour before its April 9 deadline, preventing some of the uncertainty that was on tap for the Hoosier legal community. Though the federal courts would have been able to continue funding temporarily for at least two weeks by using non-appropriated fees, as an exercise of its judicial authority, a shutdown could have delayed the start of the newest federal magistrate and the U.S. attorney’s offices may have had to halt civil litigation and related tasks.

While none of that played out because of the congressional deal funding the government for another six months, the situation sets the stage for what happens as state lawmakers wind down their final weeks of the legislative session before April 29 where a priority is setting a two-year budget and passing numerous bills that could impact the Indiana judiciary and legal community. If lawmakers hit the same kind of impasse that Congress did, they’d be pulled back for special sessions until they could agree on a spending plan that would go into effect July 1.

Four of the Indiana Supreme Court justices testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee in late March and talked to lawmakers specifically about the need for an appellate case management system, more funding for public defense, and continued fairness in how judicial officers and prosecutors are paid throughout the state. Justices Steven David, Brent Dickson, Robert Rucker, and Frank Sullivan made statements and answered questions from lawmakers, following up on a budget proposal submitted to the state budget director in October.

No committee decisions were made, but the justices offered sympathy for the state’s tough fiscal situation. They gave an overview of the court’s operations and areas that need legislative attention, according to court public information officer Kathryn Dolan.

Justice Sullivan told lawmakers that the judiciary’s portion is only about 1 percent of the state’s total $14.1 billion budget per year, and that the court has mostly straight-lined its monetary requests from the current two-year budget. Specifically, the justices mentioned the need for a new appellate case management system, increased funding for Indiana public defenders, and asked for lawmakers to respect the current model for how judicial officers and prosecutors are paid.

Concerning the appellate CMS, Justice Sullivan told lawmakers that paying for that new system requires about $3 million in new funding for the two-year period – with that breaking down to about $1.9 million the first year and $1.1 the second year. The courts can expect to save costs needed for personnel in the clerk’s office in the future as a result of the new system, Justice Sullivan said.

On salaries that account for about $97 million in the state budget, Justice David told lawmakers how the Ways and Means Committee budget prohibits judges, prosecutors, state-funded magistrates, and deputy prosecutors from receiving any pay adjustments for two years regardless of whether state employees get an increase – a move that specifically reverses a 2005 statutory change that tied trial judge compensation to that of state workers.

“We seek no special treatment for the men and women who serve as judicial officers and prosecutors across this great state and who administer the people’s business in the local courthouses,” he said. “We only ask that they be treated in the upcoming biennium in the same way that the Legislature and governor intended and agreed that they would be treated in the 2005 legislation.”

Justice Rucker testified about the public defense funding, which accounts for about $13 million currently. In the budget proposal submitted last fall, the court asked for a $3.15 million annual increase in public defense funding because of five additional counties – Delaware, Hamilton, Huntington, Lawrence, and Marshall – that will qualify for reimbursement at the start of the next biennium.  The state reimburses some of the defense costs for counties meeting certain standards, and the court says the general fund appropriation needed is $16 million rather than $12.85 million included in the budget passed by the House Ways and Means Committee.

The justices’ testimony came just as a 35-day walkout by Indiana House Democrats ended, leaving five weeks for lawmakers to not only craft a budget but also address legislative redistricting and hundreds of other pending bills. The five-week delay pushed committee meetings back, jeopardizing some bills that might have moved through the process smoothly if they’d had enough time.

Bar association leaders and those with organizations like the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association and Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana have been anxiously watching the Statehouse this session, largely on budget cost-cutting measures but more generally on those issues that might affect lawyers and judges statewide. Most say that last-minute surprises relating to legal services taxes or fees is a lingering concern at the moment – something that happened two years ago and caused lawyers, lawmakers, and judges to express surprise and frustration.

The St. Joseph County Bar Association has been watching those issues but has also been focusing on a topic that has been long-debated and came to a head about two years ago – judicial selection. The General Assembly in 2009 passed House Enrolled Act 1491, scrapping the St. Joseph Superior Court’s merit system for elections. The county is one of two in the state allowing this system at the Superior Court level, though the state’s appellate judges are also chosen this way. But the governor vetoed that legislation and voiced his support for the system overall, calming some fears that a push to scrap merit selection at all levels statewide might be successful.

“Earlier in the year, we were watching for proposals related to changing the superior court judicial selection,” said South Bend attorney Joe Fullenkamp, president-elect of the county bar association. “The fact that the Wisconsin Supreme Court election became a political referendum on the governor’s public employee union issue just highlighted the impact that politics have on the independence of a judiciary that runs for popular election. This session, the merit selection/retention issue did not arise again for our county.”

It did surface in Lake County, where efforts continued to make the Superior Court’s four county divisions merit-based rather than elected positions. A bill has passed the Senate in recent weeks and has moved on to the House side for consideration.

The Indiana attorney general’s office is also focusing on several bills that have statewide impact and have led to lawsuits in recent years – the civil forfeiture process that’s been under scrutiny and led to a statewide class action lawsuit; transparency in how gaming revenue is used for local economic development; and how state lawmakers calculate the school funding formula across the board.

The Indiana State Bar Association has been pushing not only for that judicial election change, but also a land use zoning bill and comprehensive probate legislation that’s working its way through committee, as well as bills focused on guardianship and phasing out the inheritance tax.

“Honestly, our fingers are crossed but I think all our legislation is going to make it this year, even with the walk out,” said ISBA legislative counsel Paje Felts. “It was a long five weeks but in the end, somehow, I think we will be unscathed. But you never know what can happen at the last minute.”•

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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