Hundreds of cases come before them each week and present issues that may give judges only a few moments to make a decision about a parking or moving violation.
These community-focused courts that handle traffic infractions, ordinance violations and sometimes small claims can be seen as a sort of “People’s Court” that offer litigants a glimpse of the justice process. These settings are often the only experience an individual might have as a litigant in a courtroom.
But in a time when the court process is seen by some as confusing, delay-ridden, and one that only a lawyer can understand, public perception is being clouded even more by recent events in Indiana.
Two central Indiana traffic court judges are under fire for their conduct and practices in their courtrooms, with one Marion Superior judge facing disciplinary charges after sparking statewide legislative changes and criticism from the Indiana Court of Appeals. The other jurist, who serves as a Beech Grove city judge, is being scrutinized for his conduct on and off the bench and how he’s been conducting his court for the past three years.
Some judges and attorneys say the public’s view of the entire judiciary is tarnished by these issues. It becomes even more difficult for the legal community to do its job, they say, when situations like these affect the general confidence people have in the legal system. That concern is amplified now as the state judiciary wants to reform the court system in an effort to reduce redundancy and confusion and make the process less complicated for people.
“Judges have many duties on the bench, but one of those is minding that public perception,” said Greenwood City Judge Lew Gregory, who said he’s heard about the recent examples out of Marion County and Beech Grove. “Whenever that reputation gets dinged, the system suffers and all the courts feel an impact...”
Most recently, Beech Grove City Judge Charles W. Hunter has been in the news for his handling of a woman’s handicapped parking citation in his court. Charity Bryan, who uses a wheelchair, received a ticket in August for parking in a handicapped spot without a placard, and she went to court to contest it on the grounds that the valid placard had simply fallen off her rearview mirror. She said the judge refused to dismiss the ticket, but a local television news team later reporting on the issue reportedly caught Judge Hunter – the 87-year-old attorney and jurist who uses a wheelchair himself – parking in a handicapped spot without a placard displayed and then verbally shrugging it off because he didn’t get a ticket from police.
The city mayor has publicly defended the judge, who he brought out of retirement in 2007 for the creation of the new court, and said while he’s disappointed in the judge’s alleged hypocrisy, he said not everyone will always be happy about the way a judge rules on their case.
Judge Hunter returned a call to Indiana Lawyer and said he regrets the situation and damage to the court’s reputation, but that he didn’t want to go into specifics about this issue or even talk more generally about his handling of pro se litigants or people in his court. He cited some concern about judicial conduct rules prohibiting him from speaking about these issues.
In Marion County, Superior Judge William E. Young faces scrutiny because of his behavior on the bench and the way he runs his courtroom.
A federal lawsuit filed late last year accused the Criminal 13 judge of instituting a policy allowing defendants who come before his court and are found guilty to be fined up to an additional $500 just for challenging their tickets. That suit also detailed how the judge closes proceedings to the public.
That case prompted outrage from the General Assembly. Legislators approved state statute changes, supported by Gov. Mitch Daniels, addressing what happened in Judge Young’s courtroom. Enrolled Act 399 took effect in July and set a series of maximum fines within the $500 limit for moving violations that are Class C infractions, including speeding in regular zones and violations at stop signs and lights. The law now takes into account a person’s history of contesting tickets, and it will allow higher fines depending on a person’s record of unsuccessful attempts on fighting tickets in court.
In addition to the statutory revisions, a disciplinary action was also filed against Judge Young relating to his professional conduct.
In a seven-page charging document issued July 16, the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications formally outlined four misconduct allegations against the judge, who at that point had already been publicly criticized, sued, and even reversed by the state justices for his handling of traffic court cases that had come before him since he took the bench in January 2009.
The commission alleges he “engaged in a practice of imposing substantially higher penalties against traffic court litigants who chose to have trials and lost,” and the commission also alleges that Judge Young “routinely made statements implying that litigants should not demand trials and would be penalized for doing so if they lost.”
The Indiana Supreme Court reversed one of Young’s decisions in June and ordered a new trial in the case of Hollinsworth v. State, No. 49S02-1006-CR-286, pointing specifically to Judge Young’s behavior that violated three judicial conduct canons requiring impartiality, patience, unbiased behavior, and recusal if a judge’s impartiality might be questioned. While that ruling indicated that Judge Young fell short of meeting the conduct standards, it didn’t go into any potential disciplinary matters – that came later in the year. Now, the Marion County judge faces a disciplinary hearing on those accusations in early December. A hearing panel will decide if he committed any misconduct and send a report to the state justices to review for a final decision.
Most recently, the judge has gotten the attention of the Indiana Court of Appeals and been reversed twice because of his conduct and the forms given out to pro se litigants in his court.
In two cases from August, the appellate court found the forms were unhelpful to litigants and should be examined more closely. An Aug. 25 memorandum decision was issued in Uma D. Chaluvadi v. City of Indianapolis, a case involving the appeal of Judge Young’s motion to set aside a default judgment relating to a speeding ticket Uma D. Chaluvadi received in November 2009. A police officer cited her for driving too fast in a school zone, but then crossed out the amount owed and Chaluvadi assumed it was a warning because no fine had been assessed. When she left the country and didn’t contact the court, a default judgment was entered against her and her license was suspended. She asked for the judgment to be set aside, but Judge Young dismissed that the next day.
The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case, finding that the judge should have allowed the default judgment to be set aside on grounds of Chaluvadi’s excusable neglect because of her initial conclusion about the ticket. While recognizing that she didn’t include a meritorious defense as required, the appellate court also found that the traffic court’s forms for litigants were inadequate.
“We note, however, that the form provided by the trial court for litigants seeking to set aside a default judgment is entirely unhelpful to those litigants, inasmuch as it does not emphasize the need to provide a meritorious defense,” Chief Judge John Baker wrote, referring to the reason the trial judge had denied her motion and that the form only provided a couple of lines for such a defense to be supplied.
The appellate court inferred what the woman’s meritorious defense might be in this situation and found that it would be reason to set aside the default judgment.
Two days after the traffic court condemnation, the court in Michael Butler v. City of Indianapolis even more strongly criticized Judge Young’s court and the forms used in another pro se case involving a truck driver accused of speeding and driving his vehicle in a restricted area. The case brought up similar issues, and the appellate panel addressed the procedural issues that it found most concerning about Judge Young’s court: The inadequate form and a requirement for a self-addressed stamped envelop that Judge Mark Bailey found doesn’t exist according to the Indiana rule listed on the local trial court form.
“We strongly suggest that the trial court update this form for the benefit of future litigants,” he wrote in a footnote.
Judge Young did not return messages from Indiana Lawyer seeking comment for this story and could not be reached at his court prior to taking the bench. Attorneys who practice in his court say that litigants who’ve appeared before Judge Young and later called their law offices about the issues have been outraged and shocked by how they were treated. Not much has changed in the past year, they said.
“This all has a traumatic impact on people who just expect to get their day in court, but instead are treated very poorly,” said Indianapolis attorney Paul Ogden, who represented the plaintiffs who sued the traffic court earlier this year. “People who go into that court, this is their first brush with the court system and they came out fearing it. They’re treated rudely, told by court staff they don’t care, that 99 percent of the time the court finds for police. And that if you argue your case and don’t win the fine won’t be $150 but $550.”
Ogden said he’s pleased about the law changes this year, but he hopes more will change and the traffic court will reform how it treats people.
“People are very intimidated by that court,” he said. “That gives a black eye to our entire legal process.”
Judge Gregory says the Johnson County Bar Association and his own court staff have been concerned with those two situations and the impact on the judiciary. The judge said that he tries to always give people as much guidance as he can, but admittedly it can be difficult in a court with that much traffic each day. One day recently, the judge said he had 94 cases set that morning and only a dozen may have attorneys.
“There’s pressure to keep things moving, but you also have to make sure each person leaves with an understanding of what’s happening and their rights in this system,” he said. “It’s a difficult balancing act, and you can lose track of the fact that many of these people may not understand. But we do our best to provide that lubrication for the system and prepare people for what happens in our courtrooms.”•