New magistrates approved for 7 counties

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Seven Indiana counties have been given approval to appoint new magistrate judges to their local courts. Gov. Mike Pence signed House Enrolled Act 1110 on May 5.

The version of the new law that emerged from conference committee late in the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly slipped through the Senate by a 46-0 vote and through the House of Representatives by a 69-23 vote.

In addition to providing more magistrates, the law expands the judicial officers’ abilities, allowing them to approve and accept criminal plea agreements, approve settlements in civil matters, and approve decrees of dissolution, settlement agreements and any other agreements in domestic relations or paternity actions.

Also, the law requires the judge of any city or town court be an attorney licensed in Indiana. However, any non-lawyers currently serving as a city or town judge will be allowed to remain on the bench.

St. Joseph County is getting a comparative bounty of magistrates. The law allows St. Joseph Circuit Court to appoint one full-time magistrate, bringing the court’s total to three full-time magistrates. The St. Joseph Superior Court can now appoint two additional magistrates, giving that court a total of four full-time magistrates.

St. Joseph Circuit Judge Michael Gotsch said the Circuit Court plans to put the new magistrate in the county’s civil protection order court. The high-volume court has been relying on senior judges to help with the caseload. The new magistrate will preside over hearings and assist with the petition review process.

Gotsch is hopeful that having the extra magistrate to hear testimony and ask questions will lower the number of petitioners who ultimately withdraw their requests for protective orders.  

The Northern Indiana county knew, prior to going to the Legislature, that asking for three new magistrates was a significant request, Gotsch said. The local courts and government officials worked to put the infrastructure in place before making the trip to the Statehouse. The staff is available to be assigned to the new judicial officer, and the former jail, which is attached to the city-county building, has been renovated to include additional handicap-accessible courtrooms.

In addition to the new magistrates for St. Joseph County, the law allows:

•    Clark Circuit Court to appoint a third full-time magistrate;
•    Greene Circuit and Superior courts to jointly appoint one full-time magistrate;
•    Madison Circuit Court to add a second full-time magistrate;
•    Marion Superior Court to appoint four additional full-time magistrates;
•    Porter Circuit Court to bring on a full-time magistrate;
•    Vanderburgh Circuit Court to add a second full-time magistrate.

The law removes the authority of the Sullivan Circuit and Superior judges to jointly appoint a full-time magistrate and mandates that the term of the current full-time magistrate ends by July 1, 2016.

Also, the measure urged the Legislative Council to create an interim study committee to examine how many judges are needed in Pulaski County.

According to a fiscal study of the law by the Indiana Legislative Services Agency, each new magistrate will be receiving $158,135 in annual compensation which includes salary and benefits. The total impact on the state budget will be $1.58 million in fiscal year 2016 and $1.74 million during the fiscal years of 2017, 2018 and 2019.  

Greene Superior Judge Dena Martin is hoping to have a new magistrate in place by the end of the summer. She anticipated the incoming judicial officer would be assigned to hearing child support cases.

“We’re hoping it will help us with our caseload,” Martin said, adding the magistrate will “help the court be able to get (the cases) on the docket a lot sooner.”

Nestled in the southwestern part of the state, Greene County has seen a spike in violent crime which has impacted the courts’ already crowded docket. This has forced some proceedings, like an all-day hearing for a divorce, to be scheduled a couple of months later on the court’s calendar.  

“We’re excited and looking forward to serving our citizens better,” Martin said of the getting the magistrate.

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