Legislative Council assigns topics to summer committees

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Although a study to determine the appropriate number of courts in Pulaski County was not assigned to a summer interim committee, the Indiana Legislature may not be finished with making reductions in some state courts.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, said the Statehouse is going to start looking at the caseload statistics compiled by the Indiana Supreme Court to see if some county courts have too many judicial officers for the number of cases handled yearly. This will be a reversal from the typical process of using caseload data to support the addition of a judicial officer within a particular jurisdiction.

“Quite frankly, on some of the caseload studies that the Supreme Court does, there’s a couple of counties that are overstaffed,” Steuerwald said. “In some cases you can’t justify a magistrate or a court.”

Steuerwald made the comments after the hearing by the Legislative Council on May 28, where council members unanimously approved the topics for the Indiana General Assembly’s summer study committees. More than 100 subjects had been proposed for further study, but the council whittled that list to 40, spread across 13 interim committees.

Also, the council approved the establishment of the new Office of Legislative Ethics. This office, which will be part of the Legislative Services Agency, will provide guidance to the General Assembly on questions of ethics and conflicts of interest.

The request to study the courts in Pulaski County was part of a bill passed by the Legislature during the 2015 session. House Enrolled Act 1110 provided 12 magistrates to courts in seven counties and removed the full-time magistrate from Sullivan County by July 1, 2016.

The provisions for the study topic and the realignment in Sullivan County came from Senate Bill 58, which was co-authored by Sens. Brent Steele and Luke Kenley and sponsored in the House of Representatives by Steuerwald.

According to the fiscal analysis of HEA 1110, the state will save $158,135 in salary and benefits by terminating the magistrate position in Sullivan County.

This coming summer, the Interim Study Committee on Courts and Judiciary has been tasked with reviewing the state’s Medical Malpractice Act to see if the cap on damages should be increased and whether changes should be made to the medical-review panel process. In addition, the committee will examine all requests for new courts or changes in jurisdictions of existing courts.

The Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code will continue work started by the criminal code revision passed by the Legislature in 2013. Committee members will look at the problems offenders face as they try to find a job after being released from incarceration.

Steuerwald said the committee might consider establishing a program for offenders as they come to the end of their sentence to help them reintegrate into society. Also, the interim group could look to see that proper funding is available for jobs programs.

In recent years, the Legislative Council has been curbing the number of topics assigned to study committees and streamlined the process. Indiana House of Representatives Speaker Brian Bosma said limiting the subject matter to be reviewed gives better focus to the committees’ work.

“We had to pick the ones we thought were most critical and most likely to proceed next year or that needed clarification,” he said.

However, Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane issued a statement after the council hearing critical of Republican leaders for not assigning a Religious Freedom Restoration Act anti-discrimination study. It had been proposed that a study committee look at adding gender identity and sexual orientation to the Indiana Civil Rights Law.

“I’m frustrated my colleagues felt strengthening our state civil rights protection did not merit legislative study,” the Anderson Democrat said. “I am fearful some have failed to absorb the lesson imparted this past session.”

Bosma said some of the council members thought the Statehouse should wait for the Supreme Court of the United States to rule on the same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges, 14-556, before studying anti-discrimination legislation. They want to see what the legal framework is before moving forward, he said.

Ethics office

The Legislative Council also approved Robert Rudolph, senior staff attorney with the Indiana Legislative Services Agency, to serve as chief counsel for the new Office of Legislative Ethics.

Bosma described Rudolph as an “excellent choice” for the position, noting legislators have consulted with Rudolph informally many times in the past on ethical issues.

A graduate of Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Rudolph joined LSA in 1989 after stints in the Indiana State Budget Agency and the Indiana Department of Administration. At the LSA, he has been involved in the drafting of complex legislation and has written most of the ethics bills. Also he has served as the attorney on the House Rules Committee.

The ethics office was created in response to an ethics scandal in the House of Representatives during the 2014 session. Former Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, was investigated for violating the Legislature’s ethics rules for lobbying against a bill that would have been detrimental to his family’s nursing home business.

Turner was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing but in the fallout from the matter, he resigned his leadership post, then his seat in the House.

Within the LSA, the ethics office will be part of the agency’s Office of Bill Drafting and Research. Staff will be shared between the two offices.

“I’m quite confident that they’ll be working on policies and clarifications with legislative leaders on some of the issues that exist out there,” Bosma said of the new office, “and (Rudolph) will be involved in the redrafting of our ethics disclosure statements, which will take place this summer.”•

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