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Legislature's end suspenseful for legal community

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As the Indiana General Assembly got down to its final hours in a short-session, significant changes for the Hoosier legal community were on the table to possibly increase the number of appellate judges, change how one county chooses its trial judges, and impact how juveniles can be placed outside the state.

In the end, lawmakers didn't act and the changes weren't adopted by the time they adjourned just before 1 a.m. Saturday. But how that process played out in the final days and hours is even more telling than the measures themselves and reflect what might happen in the future if the topics come up again.

Three days before the session ended, lawmakers resurrected House Enrolled Act 1491 that would not only have scrapped merit selection in favor of nonpartisan elections in St. Joseph Superior Courts, but also add a new panel to the Indiana Court of Appeals. The governor vetoed it last year with a strongly worded message supporting the current system that's been in place for more than three decades, and criticizing the merging of the two issues, which he believed should be considered separately.

In the final hours before the session ended, lawmakers still hadn't acted on it and weren't sure what the prospects were for possible consideration. The legislation's author, Rep. Craig Fry, D-Mishawka, was outside the state during the final week of the session and neither he nor House Speaker Rep. Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, returned messages from Indiana Lawyer about why HEA 1491 was resurrected. But it didn't get attention and was taken off the agenda at about 8 p.m. Friday, lost in the shuffle as lawmakers negotiated a session-ending deal involving unemployment insurance, jobs, and various financial issues.

As HEA 1491 faded, so did the prospects for Senate Bill 149 that would have repealed the Department of Child Services out-of-state placements statute change from last year - a revision that surprised and outraged juvenile judges and lawmakers for the most part because it came at the last-minute during special session conference committee talks. House Bill 1167 initially dealt with that issue and representatives approved it 93-4, but the measure died after failing to get a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The repeal was merged into SB 149 that included multiple DCS-related law changes, but some lawmakers opposed that move and it went to conference committee during the legislature's final week.

Attorney-lawmaker Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, had originally signed on as a sponsor to HB 1167. He was disappointed it didn't get support in the end, but said he wasn't surprised because DCS had considered it a high priority to defeat the measure. Some last-minute negotiations were happening to keep it included, but those fell through and lawmakers had to eliminate the placement issue in order to get the broader SB 149 approved.

Three of the four final conference committee members - Rep. Dennis Avery, D-Evansville; Rep. Matt Bell, R-Avilla; and Sen. Connie Lawson, R-Danville - said the opposition was too strong to get the placement law changed. The fourth committee member, Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, couldn't be reached by Indiana Lawyer deadline.

Avery co-sponsored the amended SB 149 and said he worked on the conference committee for eight days to get it passed, but eventually let it die when it was clear the full bill wouldn't pass if the placements provision was included. Word was that the judiciary's chair Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, refused to hold a hearing and later opposed the amendment because it appeared to circumvent the committee process, Avery said. He also heard that the Senate leadership was supporting the administration and felt the placement revision was an attempt to embarrass the DCS and Director James Payne, a former juvenile judge.

Bell, one of the representatives who'd opposed the idea on the House floor, said he believes that juveniles shouldn't be sent outside Indiana because current service providers offer adequate and quality facilities that aren't fully used. He also noted that other measures in the legislation had been removed by the conference committee, including a provision that would have required DCS to adopt rules setting reimbursement rates for adoptive parents and service providers. This issue is currently the focus of an Indiana-based lawsuit in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Bell said some worried a law change now could impact that pending litigation.

Despite the lack of success relating to out-of-state placements this session, Broden on the Senate side doesn't think the issue is dead and he hope to bring it back in the future.

"As long as juvenile judges, who handle these placements first hand, have concerns, lawmakers will be knocking at the door on this issue," Broden said. "I think this will be an ongoing dispute we have to address."

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