Some counties funnel domestic relations cases to specific courts, others split load

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Editor's note: The names of the Marion County judges who heard the domestic relations cases has been corrected.

The Indianapolis legal community was divided in the early 1990s over a plan to concentrate domestic relations cases into specific courts. The proposal became a reality, but the reality became too burdensome.

“The judges who heard those cases became very jaded,” said now-retired attorney Frank Miroff, whose opposition to the proposal was chronicled in a November 1990 issue of Indiana Lawyer.

Marion County divorce cases at that time were spread among most of the civil courts, as they are now. Advocates of channeling those cases into a family law division argued that the cases were important enough to merit judges who devoted all their time and court resources to focus on them. Beginning in 1991, divorce cases were filed in just three courts.

ayers-cynthia-mug Ayers

“It was difficult,” Marion Superior Judge Cynthia Ayers recalled after the switch was made to direct all new domestic relations filings to one of three judges. Ayers was one of them, with each judge receiving about 750 to 800 new divorce filings annually. She said Marion Superior Judge John Hanley and retired Marion Superior Judge Patrick McCarty also were assigned these cases.

“After two-and-a-half years, they finally realized there just weren’t enough judges,” Ayers said.

“Certainly, it was well-intended because they wanted consistency, and the people designing this program were trying to focus on family problems. … They just didn’t have the resources and the number of judicial officers in place to hear them,” Ayers said. The number of magistrates and commissioners assigned to the courts has increased since, she said, making the system more efficient.

Miroff believes the proposal got life because most judges in the early 1990s didn’t want to be bothered with divorce cases. He argued against funneling the cases to select courts in part because of the complexity of cases that aren’t easily resolved between the parties.

In a dissolution of marriage, he said everything from psychological evaluations to accounting might be factors, and that argued in favor of distributing the caseload among jurists with wide and varied experience.

“I’m not sure if any judge wanted to say, ‘I am going to hear only domestic relations cases,’” said former Marion Superior Judge Anthony Metz III, who retired from the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana. “They’re not great cases to hear.” He said there’s a ring of truth in the adage that criminal courts see bad people at their best and divorce courts see good people at their worst.

“To be honest with you, one of the hardest cases I ever tried was when I was a commissioner in Circuit Court, and I had to do a preliminary hearing,” Metz recalled. The couple before him “could barely pay the bills together, and now they’re going their separate ways.”

He said the practical difficulties in finding solutions in such cases and the emotions associated with some of them created burnout.

“They were very hard cases, and I hated those cases,” he said. Some, he said, “never seem to end, particularly when there’s only one party that wants a divorce.

“Taking a steady diet of that and only that would be very difficult,” Metz said. “I think there are some people who could do that.”

Marion County’s experience with consolidating family law cases aside, a few of Indiana’s larger judicial circuits do keep these cases before the same select judges.

Courts in Allen, Lake, Porter and Tippecanoe counties, for instance, direct domestic relations cases to a small number of courts. Nowhere, though, is the concentration greater than in Lake County, where more than 2,000 cases filed in 2013 were split between two courts.

Lake Circuit Judge George C. Paras said the distribution of cases to just two judges is the way it’s been since he became a court officer in 2005. He largely seems to take in stride the load of 990 domestic relations cases filed in his court in 2013.

“We’ve got a lot of pro se (litigants) who are uncontested, and those are not really a problem,” Paras said. “It keeps you in touch with people,” he said of hearing family law cases.

pera-john-r-mug Pera

Lake Superior Presiding Judge John Pera said the family law division in Lake County is a natural evolution for the system that by statute is divided into civil and criminal courts, along with county courts that hear small claims and some minor criminal cases.

“Up here the sense of the judiciary is that there’s an advantage to specialized dockets and an advantage to having judges focused in an area where there’s great need,” Pera said. “We value the expertise that judges gain from handling certain types of cases, and it benefits the public.”

Pera downplayed the burnout factor. He said family law cases can be emotionally charged, but so can criminal cases, protective order petitions and other matters.

“There isn’t a litigant who comes before us who doesn’t have a certain level of emotional issues surrounding their particular matter,” he said. “People turn to the courts to have their problems solved, and it’s of utmost importance to them.”

Marion Superior Presiding Judge Robert Altice Jr. doesn’t believe there would be much appetite for reassigning cases in Marion County any differently than they currently are.domestic-map.gif

“I’m a big believer in random assignment of cases,” he said. “The sheer magnitude of domestic relations cases we get, I don’t see in this day and age and the size of the city how three judges could handle that volume of cases.”

Miroff said domestic relations cases often are mistaken as easy cases to represent and try, and this could have been part of the motivation for consolidating cases in Marion County a quarter-century ago. He believes the local family law bar and bench have improved in that time.

“Young people come out of law school and think, well, I can try a divorce, and that’s really not true,” he said. “I loved the practice of family law – loved it – because there were so many things to think about.

“This is so important, and the system affects so many people, you’ve got to give it better service,” Miroff said.•

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