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Unifying Indiana courts

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New signs at the Henry County Justice Center don’t just direct litigants, lawyers and court visitors where to go, but also reflect recent changes to how the local court system is structured.

The signs also hint at a larger effort underway throughout the state to reform how trial courts operate and work together.

For Judge Mary Willis in Henry Circuit Court 1, the new signs and seals mean that she and her colleagues can now hear any type of case from courtrooms inside and outside of Henry County.

“This allows some creativity, we didn’t have the flexibility to do that before,” she said. “We all need to start looking not only at my cases, but our cases on a broader level for the citizens.”

A new law that took effect July 1 not only unified Henry County so that all three of its courts are now Circuits, it gives all Indiana trial courts the same jurisdiction and allows them to effectively unify in a similar way. Unified courts in Clark and Madison counties were also created by that law. Courts no longer have exclusive jurisdiction in certain criminal or family law cases, even though counties have the ability to divide dockets in that way. Now, a judge can hear any case and help out a colleague in the same or another county, and they are

all able to share employees and judicial officers if the need arises.

unification Henry County Judges Bob Witham and Mary Willis are able to work together more efficiently after their court system’s unification on July 1, 2011, a change that transformed the three local courts into Circuit courts under a new law passed by the Indiana General Assembly.. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

The revisions are part of a broad court reform plan being implemented to simplify the judiciary and make better use of limited resources. Some local judges are cautious, especially when it comes to consolidating courts, but those leading the reform initiative are optimistic about its benefits. Judges who have embraced the unification idea say it has helped them better handle their dockets and court business.

“Indiana has one of the most complex court systems in the U.S. and our goal is to effectively eliminate fiefdoms of local judges, recognizing that we’re all state judges,” said Elkhart Circuit Judge Terry Shewmaker, who co-chairs the Indiana Judicial Conference’s Strategic Planning Committee that is leading the reform effort. “This opens up the door for judicial creativity in resolving cases, allowing judges to collaborate more.”

The statutory revisions passed by the Indiana General Assembly in 2011 represent one of its most significant moves yet to address statewide court reform. The changes to various provisions of Indiana Code Section 33 provide that all Circuit, Superior and Probate courts within a county have original and concurrent jurisdiction in all civil and criminal cases.

That main provision affects 255 courts in 69 Indiana counties – 23 counties weren’t affected because they have only one court or already have a unified Circuit system in place. The legislation offers counties with a large difference in docket activity between courts a way to redistribute their workloads in a more efficient manner. Court administrators, probation officers and other staff members can be shared between courts. Presiding judges can be designated on a year-by-year basis to deal with joint budget, public defender and probation issues rather than having each court analyze its own perspective on those topics.

Willis said Henry County courts are able to share public defender and probation officers and limit what they might need for individual courts.

“There comes a point where we just can’t cut resources anymore, and you have to maximize what you have,” she said. “That’s what we are doing here.”

As a part of the new structure, a $6,000 court reform grant has paid for new signage and seals for the unified court. While attorneys and litigants might not see a visible change outside of those superficial aspects, Willis said the courts are able to more efficiently conduct business. That translates to fewer delays and more cases being adjudicated.

Others who’ve experienced the Circuit unification or working together say they’ve also seen benefits.

stoner-mark-mugBW Stoner

In Delaware County, where the five Circuit courts have been unified for more than a decade, Judge Marianne Vorhees said they’ve been able to share employees and resources without having to ask for additional funding for new positions. One court budget is also presented to county officials, making the process more efficient for everyone involved.

“It’s been a positive experience for us,” she said. “We can transfer cases more easily between courts and one person can handle the administrative aspects, rather than all five of us. This has made life a lot easier for all the judges here, and we’d encourage other counties to use this option.”

As of now, most judges statewide say they haven’t experienced out-of-county sharing of court resources or judges. If one county has a high caseload and is overwhelmed, another judge with fewer cases could help balance out the system by presiding over those cases. Some smaller counties have already been sharing resources with other counties in the area to some degree, and with this new law, others say they’ve been talking more about that possibility.

Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, who has generally supported state court reform efforts during recent years, expressed concern that this move toward general jurisdiction goes too far and interferes with the home-rule concept.

“I’m troubled about this push to erase county lines,” he said. “There’s a point where we’re crossing a line and going against the structure of how our state is set up.”

Statewide, Judge Mark Stoner from Marion County – co-chair of the IJC’s Strategic Planning Committee – said that the biggest application of unification would likely be in family law areas where someone might have multiple cases spread out over different criminal and civil courts and with various attorney representation. Courts often face delays when a criminal proceeding is pending in one court and another judge is awaiting that result before ruling on a custody or Child In Need of Services case.

“Now, you can combine all of them and handle all those issues with one judge,” Stoner said. He pointed out that Marion County hasn’t unified yet or started sharing resources in that way, but he hopes that can happen soon between juvenile and adult court proceedings.

“It’s all about judicial economy,” he said. “The main trust of the strategic reform plan is to have more creative and efficient courts, knowing we’re going to be using less taxpayer dollars.”•

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