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State funding of judges being explored

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Lawmakers rejected a southern Indiana county's request this week for a new judge to run a family court, even though it proposes paying for it locally rather than with state money. But in declining to attach the magistrate-turned-judge idea to another bill, a House committee said it wants to keep talking about the issue that could be a policy-altering move in how Indiana pays for its trial court judges.

The House Judiciary Committee approved HB 1154, which would allow Marion County to convert its 24 appointed commissioners to magistrates that hold the same responsibilities but would be able to consider a wider range of issues within each court. The county proposes paying the $2.3 million for those magistrates with a $35 fee tacked on to traffic infractions, which has been collected since 2004 and is by law turned over to the state general fund. The fee initially went into place to pay for jail overcrowding costs, but that issue has been largely resolved and the fee isn't used for that anymore. Now, the state's largest county wants to use that money to save the state from having to pay for the county magistrates or pay for adding new judicial officers.

By doing this, the county expects it would also be able to save enough money to use for the local funding of guardian ad litem costs, which became necessary after the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled on this issue last year.

Committee members voted 11-0 in support of the idea, but not before voicing hesitation about a proposal by Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, to amend the legislation so that Bartholomew Superior Court could also convert a commissioner position into a new Superior judgeship starting in July 2011.

This would allow the county to convert a current commissioner, who hears only child support non-payment cases, to a judge that could hear all family-related case types. Bartholomew Circuit Judge Stephen Heimann proposed using the same kind of funding mechanism as Marion County is proposing in its commissioner-to-magistrate conversion - using a fee of at least $20 on traffic infractions that would go to the state general fund. If anything fell short of the estimated $150,000 needed, the county would be responsible for making up the difference. An estimated $189,000 per year could be raised from the fee, and be applied not only to the judge's salary but also benefits, Judge Heimann said.

Even without this having a state fiscal impact, Rep. Trent Van Haaften, D-Mount Vernon, questioned why the proposed amendment didn't call for a commissioner-to-magistrate change as Marion County's proposal did, but rather a commissioner-to-judge. In response, Judge Heimann said it was specifically because the county needed a new family court and needed a judge's authority to hear all of those issues that might come before it.

This new judge request arose during the interim Commission on Courts meeting last fall. Judge Heimann requested a third judge and the interim committee approved the idea as long as state funding is available. After that, discussion began about how the new judgeship could be paid for and possibly be merged into other legislation.

Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, said she couldn't support that idea being attached to her HB 1154 at this time without knowing more. She noted her concern about modifying the system of how state judges are funded in this case. Several other lawmakers also expressed concerns, some more broadly about how it could be applied to other counties.

"This is a whole policy change," said committee chair Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond. "We're talking about changing how we do things all together in funding state judges."

Representatives said this funding mechanism could open the door to other counties who might want to explore more creative ways to pay for new judicial officers rather than simply relying on the traditional state funding process. Lawson asked that it not be included in this legislation but that discussions continue on the concept more broadly.

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