Specialized courts get boost in State of Judiciary

January 27, 2016
2016 State of Judiciary

Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush built on the development of problem-solving courts she highlighted in her State of the Judiciary address Jan. 13 as the Supreme Court authorized Indiana’s first commercial courts a week later.

“Last year, we laid the groundwork to make the possibility of commercial courts a reality. This year, our first six commercial courts will start hearing cases,” Rush told a joint session of the Indiana General Assembly.

On Jan. 20, the court issued an order establishing a pilot project involving these six commercial courts that will handle specialized dockets of business cases:

• Allen Superior Civil Division Judge Craig Bobay;

• Elkhart Superior 2 Judge Stephen Bowers;

• Vanderburgh Superior Judge Richard D’Amour;

• Floyd Superior 3 Judge Maria Granger;

• Lake Superior Judge John Sedia; and

• Marion Superior Civil Division 1 Judge Heather Welch.

The order notes the pilot project shall not exceed three years and will begin June 1. The parties involved in the disputes will agree to have their cases resolved in commercial court.

“The purpose of commercial courts is to (1) establish judicial structures that will help all court users by improving court efficiency; (2) allow business and commercial disputes to be resolved with expertise, technology, and efficiency; (3) enhance the accuracy, consistency, and predictability of decisions in business and commercial cases; (4) enhance economic development in Indiana by furthering the efficient, predictable resolution of business and commercial law disputes; and (5) employ and encourage electronic information technologies, such as e-filing, e-discovery, telephone/video conferencing, and also employ early alternative dispute resolution interventions, as consistent with Indiana law,” the order says.

Several of the judges are members of the Commercial Courts Working Group tasked with developing rules and procedures for the dockets that some believe will resemble the problem-solving courts that have grown in number around the state.

As of Jan. 15, there were 71 problem-solving courts operating in Indiana with another 13 in the planning stages. According to a state courts report, that includes 42 drug and family dependency drug courts, 24 veterans courts, nine re-entry courts, five juvenile problem-solving courts, three mental health courts and a domestic violence court.

The growth represents 26 percent more specialized courts in practice or in development compared with three years ago.

Rush said these courts are making a difference in people’s lives, exemplified by a Lawrence County schoolteacher who lost her job after she fell victim to heroin addiction. She said drug courts like the one that helped Lindsay Endris, 28, are helping communities statewide deal with a crippling crisis of drug abuse.

“We cannot afford to incarcerate or institutionalize our way out of this drug crisis,” Rush said. “Our approach must include helping sons, daughters, husbands and wives return to a life after addiction. There are no easy answers, but your courts stand ready to help communities bring productivity back to those who have lost their way.”

Rush saluted Endris, a guest at her speech. She was arrested and lost her job as a first-grade teacher after a painkiller prescription led to an addiction to heroin. Endris credits Lawrence County Drug Court with turning her life around.

“She said, ‘Drug court made me accountable. I had structure. This wasn’t just about getting sober, it was about coming to grips with what caused me to use,’” Rush said of Endris’ experience. Rush said Endris said upon graduating drug court that program “can and will restore your crumbling life.”

The scourge of drug abuse is a problem Rush said is seen repeatedly by trial court judges from all corners of the state, particularly heroin and methamphetamine. She noted Wayne County Judge Dave Kolger said that in 20 years as a prosecutor, he handled a total of 20 heroin cases, but now sees cases daily. She said Fayette County Judge Paul Freed “lamented that his county of 23,000 had 30 heroin overdoses in 30 days.”

Meanwhile, Rush said Department of Child Services Director Mary Beth Bonaventura reported a 30 percent increase in children entering the child welfare system, primarily because of parental substance abuse.

Veterans courts also have grown in popularity, Rush said. There are 15 such dockets in the state with nine more on the way, according to state courts data.

Other highlights of Rush’s address include:

• Expansion of electronic filing. Now in place for appellate courts and Hamilton and Clark County trial courts, Rush said e-filing will begin soon in Harrison, Henry, St. Joseph, Shelby and Wells counties.

• Indiana is the only state with a Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative partnership with all three branches of government. This has resulted in lower recidivism rates, fewer minors being incarcerated and estimated savings of $15 million reported from the Department of Correction.

• Increased funding from the Legislature allowed 43 counties to add 84 new correction and probation officers.•


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