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Will small claims court stay or will it go?

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The Indiana Supreme Court will decide whether a Marion County judge or a township trustee has the authority to determine where one of the state’s busiest courts will reside.

In Re: Mandate of Funds for Center Township of Marion County Small Claims Court Order for Mandate and Mandate of Funds, 49S00-1207-MF-420, involves issues of separation of powers and who controls the purse strings and day-to-day operation of the court.

city county The City-County Building in downtown Indianapolis has housed Center Township Small Claims Court since the court’s inception.(Photo submitted)

Center Township Small Claims Judge Michelle Smith Scott in 2011 issued a mandate order seeking funds for her court to hire additional staff, reconfigure the offices and remain where it’s always been – in the Indianapolis City-County Building. The order came after Township Trustee Eugene Akers and the township board approved a move of the court to the Julia M. Carson Government Center at 300 E. Fall Creek Parkway in Indianapolis.

Special Judge Charles L. Berger last year affirmed Scott’s mandate order and said the court would stay put and get most of the additional money that Scott requested. Akers and the township board appealed, and a decision is expected soon from the Indiana Supreme Court.

Scott said the 12,000 to 15,000 cases heard annually in her court are the most of any in Marion County, and

she believes hers probably is the busiest court in the state. “We’re able to handle it quite well,” Scott said of the court’s current location.

But Akers, who worked briefly as a deputy in the court prior to his election as trustee, disputes that. “The court is too small. It’s confining for the public and the staff.”

As trustee, Akers spent about $539,000 remodeling the former 300 East restaurant and bar in the Carson Government Center on Fall Creek Parkway to house the court, according to court documents. “The advantages are it’s larger, it can seat 100 people in the court, and there is room enough for the staff,” he said. “They’re not sitting on top of each other and it’s more convenient and it’s less costly to the taxpayers as far as the trustee’s office is concerned.”

Akers noted that the current configuration of the court requires users to walk through the clerks’ stations before entering the court. “There is no privacy for the staff,” he said.

Users also would benefit, Akers contends. “They (wouldn’t) have to worry about running out and putting some money in the meter if it’s a large court day.”

Berger toured both facilities before he ruled in Scott’s favor in June.

“Center Township proceeded with renovations to the Carson Center at a cost of over half a million dollars despite the issuance of the Mandate Order and the Indiana Supreme Court’s Order Appointing Special Judge prior to the execution of Center Township’s renovation contract. Center Township accepted the risk,” Berger wrote. “The fact that a court facility is now available at the Carson Center cannot dictate the outcome of this action. … The public’s access to justice would not be served by relocation to the Carson Center facility.”

Berger wrote that Akers “failed to adequately study and analyze the impact of the move” and didn’t consult with Scott. Berger also ordered that staff in the court should report to the court rather than the trustee after evidence was presented that clerks “view the Trustee, not the Court, as their employer.”

Akers said he talked to Scott before and after his election about the need to move the court, but he said those talks never included discussions of locations outside the City-County Building. “The point was moving; not where,” he said.

focus-court-15col.jpg Township trustees want the small claims venue moved to new quarters at the Julia M. Carson Government Center on Fall Creek Parkway.(Photo submitted)

Akers and the board argued that Scott has a personal lucrative interest in performing weddings – about 1,700 in 2010 and 2011, according to court records – that drove her desire to stay at the current location near the clerk’s office. Berger dismissed the concern as “speculation … unsupportable by credible evidence.”

Scott referred questions about the mandate dispute to the Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP attorneys representing the court. Partner Phil Isenbarger said the case presents separation-of-powers issues commonly raised in mandate actions.

“There’s always a power struggle between the courts and the council (or other funding body) as the case may be,” Isenbarger said. “What I would say is, not as counsel for the court but just as a practicing lawyer and a member of the local bar association, it’s really important that we get those things right. For the vast number of people in the community, their touch with the legal system is the small claims court.”

Karl Mulvaney of the BGD team that represented Scott said, “We certainly believe we presented arguments that judges are entitled to control what goes on in their courtrooms.”

Sections 1 - 3 of Indiana Code 33-34-6 give a Marion County township trustee the responsibility of providing a small claims courtroom, offices, supplies and staff. But Berger concluded in his ruling, “the Court cannot be denied the ability to control its daily operations and ensure that its location, facilities and policies ensure adequate access to justice.”

But township attorney Greg Hahn of Bose McKinney & Evans LLP said the trustee has clear responsibilities under the law.

“The statute says the Center Township trustee and, in fact, all the trustees have a duty to run those courts,” Hahn said. “That’s been the statute for a long time, and they’ve had that authority, or duty, however you want to look at it.

“The trustee is still responsible for the costs,” Hahn said. “The judge can say, ‘I want A, B, C, D, E and F, but the trustee is still the one who has to pay for it.”•

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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