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Lawmakers vote on COA panel, Lake County fee

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Both houses of the Indiana General Assembly took action on court-related legislation Thursday.

The Senate moved forward with Senate Bill 35, authored by Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, that would create a sixth Indiana Court of Appeals panel. No amendments were offered on the second reading Thursday, and it's expected to get a final third reading for adoption next week. If approved, this would be the first expansion since 1991 and would bump the number of intermediate appellate judges from 15 to 18 starting in January 2010.

Despite doubt that the bill would get enough support this session because of tough economic times and difficult budget balancing, the legislation that carries an estimated price tag of $1.3 in its first year and $2.2 million afterward is moving swiftly so far. SB 35 received unanimous consent from both the Senate's judiciary and appropriations committees.

If approved by the full Senate before its deadline to do so next week, the bill would move to the House of Representatives for consideration before the session concludes in late April.

Meanwhile, the House passed a bill that would add a $10 fee onto Lake County court cases to pay for the eventual construction of a centralized judicial center.

Lawmakers voted 53-41 in favor of House Bill 1435, authored by Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, which would establish a fund aimed at financing, constructing, and equipping a new facility in or near Crown Point. The fund for a consolidated judicial center comes on the heels of a 2007 study recommending many ways that the local government could be more efficient, including the idea of centralizing into one location.

If enacted, a $10 fee would be charged on any civil filing in Lake's Circuit or Superior courts, and in criminal cases where someone is convicted of an offense, required to pay a pretrial diversion fee, or found to have committed an infraction or ordinance violation.

With more than 100,000 cases filed in Lake County, this $10 fee could bring in an estimated $800,000 a year.

Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, objected to the bill and said a centralized judicial center would disenfranchise residents far from Crown Point, particularly lower-income residents without adequate transportation options. Lawson told him that the city courts in Gary and Hammond would remain open, but Brown wasn't satisfied and voted against the proposal.

The measure now moves to the Senate for consideration.

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