4 counties receive initial approval for new magistrates, courts

Four Indiana counties will be able to make their case to the Indiana General Assembly for additional judicial resources after a legislative study committee gave a positive recommendation to their requests for additional judges and courts.

At the third and final meeting of the Interim Study Committee and Courts and the Judiciary Thursday, lawmakers and other committee members, including Chief Justice Loretta Rush, approved a request for judicial officers or courts for Jefferson, Kosciusko, Putnam and Scott counties. Jefferson, Scott and Putnam counties each requested the addition of a magistrate in their counties, while Kosciusko County is seeking the creation of Kosciusko Superior Court 4.

Judges from each of the four counties testified before the committee as to their need for additional resources, pointing to issues such as the rise in the number of children in need of services cases and the continuing opioid epidemic as two of the main reasons for their expanding dockets. The judges also noted that it’s not uncommon for them to skip their lunch hours multiple days a week to keep up with their workload, or to run out of space in their courtrooms to accommodate all of the litigants and attorneys who are scheduled to come before them on a given day.

Jefferson Superior Judge Michael Hensley told committee members that because judges’ dockets are so full, they often spend the majority of their days sitting on the bench, rather than in their offices. That complicates the completion of judges’ administrative responsibilities, Hensley said, and makes it difficult to find time for tasks such as legal research.

Scott Superior Judge Marsha Owens Howser, who handles the civil cases in her county, raised particular concerns about how the growing number of CHINS cases can affect her daily docket. When the Department of Child Services removes a child from a home and files a CHINS petitions, Howser must hold an emergency hearing, which can disrupt her schedule and create a backlog. But if a magistrate were added in Scott County, then he or she could handle the emergency hearings, allowing Howser to keep up with her daily schedule, she said.

Similarly, Putnam Superior Judge Charles Bridges said if the General Assembly approves a magistrate for his county, the new judicial officer will be shared between the two current judges to handle “routine” motions, such as issues related to discovery. That would free up him and Putnam Circuit Judge Matthew Headley to focus on the more complex cases that come before their courts.

In Kosciusko County, a new judicial officer has not been appointed since 1997, Circuit Judge Michael Reed told the committee, so it’s not uncommon for the current judges to be found at work on weekends or in the evenings. He noted that an increase in pro se litigants is contributing to the excessive workloads in his county, because the nature of pro se claims often require judges to spend more time trying to understand and resolve the issues being presented.  

The 2016 Indiana Caseload Assessment Plan ranks Scott County fourth in the state in terms of need for additional judicial resources, with Kosciusko County ranked seventh, Jefferson ranked eighth and Putnam ranked 15th. In the 2016 Weighted Caseload Report – which Indiana Office of Judicial Administration Chief Administrative Officer Mary Willis presented to the committee at its Sept. 21 meeting – Jefferson County was ranked third in terms of severity of need, with Putnam County coming in at fifth, Kosciusko County at 14th and Scott County at 15th.

Each of the counties’ requests were approved by a unanimous voice vote of the committee and will be revisited when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

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