With a new legislative session on the horizon, the Indiana General Assembly is going to be one to watch as it likely tackles a multitude of issues influencing the state’s legal community.
Lawmakers returned Nov. 16 for the mostly celebratory Organization Day, kicking off the session that means a return to power for Republicans in the House of Representatives and supermajority for that party in the Senate. Two lawyer-legislators will be leading those houses and setting the agenda while deciding what bills will make it to the respective floors for a vote.
In the Senate, President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, was again chosen to head his party’s 37-13 supermajority, meaning Republicans will be able to conduct business without any Democrats being present.
In the House, the Republicans took a 60-40 majority and Indianapolis lawyer-legislator Rep. Brian Bosma regained the position of house speaker that he’d held in 2005 and 2006. Democrats have controlled the House for the past four years.
Both the House and Senate opened with a legislative prayer invoking Jesus Christ, an issue that had sparked a federal lawsuit in 2005 when Bosma last held the speaker seat. An Indianapolis judge ruled that historic practice wasn’t constitutional, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the suit on procedural grounds without addressing the merits. The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana continues to watch the issue, but no more suits have been filed.
Typically, Indiana’s Secretary of State calls each house to order. But Secretary of State and Congressman-elect Todd Rokita found himself in Washington, D.C., for new member orientation on organization day, paving the way for Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard to assume those duties. State law dictates that the chief justice should step in if the secretary of state is unavailable, though it has never happened in Indiana before.
“Normally, this is the moment when the secretary of state introduces the chief justice,” he said, garnering laughter and a standing ovation. “You didn’t have to do that. I just invite you to raise your hand and repeat after me.”
The chief justice administered the oaths to lawmakers, and in the House Bosma publicly outlined his priorities for the coming budget-setting session. He said kitchen-table analysis was needed in a time when state revenues are at 2005 levels, and Bosma encouraged more transparency in state government by promising that all House committee meetings would be broadcast online, that financial restraint and educational protections would be priorities, and he mentioned that redistricting will be a priority.
Bosma also encouraged bipartisanship and took action that he described as a first for the state – naming two Democrats to fill committee chair slots that would ordinarily go to the majority party. He named Rep. Steve Stemler, D-Jeffersonville, to chair the House Commerce, Small Business and Economic Development Committee; and named Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, to lead a new government reduction committee that is tasked with identifying business regulations, state statutes, and agencies and commissions Indiana could do without.
That committee could not only examine state statutes that govern how Indiana attorneys practice law and the state’s judges interpret them, but it could also put more attention on reforms that have been outlined since the Kernan-Shepard report was released in 2007. One of those issues has been court reform, which the Hoosier judiciary supports in order to create more simplicity in how courts operate statewide. Condensing the number of city or town courts and changing jurisdictions of Circuit and Superior courts may be an issue on the committee’s agenda.
Earlier this fall, the Commission on Courts supported the concept of standardizing state trial court jurisdictions but didn’t draft any legislative language. The change would make reassigning workload between courts easier and wouldn’t require judges to seek proposed legislative changes for new judicial resources, according to Marion Superior Judge Mark Stoner, who has been a part of a larger court reform plan addressing this issue. If centralized state funding for trial courts materializes in the future, this would be a step toward easing into that, he said. That legislative proposal came along with another that the commission supported by a 7-1 vote (with Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, opposed) - recommending that all city and town court judges be attorneys starting with 2011 elections.
The Indiana State Bar Association and other bar associations say they will continue watching judicial selection, although no recommendations or proposed legislation have been made thus far this year, as well as keeping tabs on a possible legal services tax – something that’s been pondered in past years and might be more popular as lawmakers focus on budget-setting in the throes of a battered economy.
Attention will likely focus on the Judicial Automation and Technology Committee as it has in recent years, specifically as that committee considers the costs of a statewide case management system for all 92 counties. That proposal has been making progress since late 2007. The Commission on Courts approved draft legislation that would increase the Automated Record-keeping Fee that largely pays for the Odyssey system’s implementation from the current $7 to $10 beginning July 1, 2011, and then lowering it back to the existing level June 30, 2015. The commission voted 7-1 to recommend the proposal to legislators, which it has done in the past but has failed to get further support.
The Indiana Attorney General’s Office also has some key topics on its legislative radar that have financial and economic implications, such as transparency in local economic development agreements regarding casino revenue and issues involving mortgage foreclosure and Medicaid fraud.
Though legislators return to the day-to-day Statehouse work on Jan. 5, they can now introduce legislation for consideration in the coming session. Bosma has capped the number of bills each legislator can sponsor at 10.
“If you can’t forward your legislative agenda with a 10-bill limit in the long session, then maybe your agenda is too long,” Bosma said.
This is a long budget-setting session with lawmakers shooting to finish the state’s business by the end of April, in order to avoid a special session as was the case in 2009.•