Citing a need to further invest in Indiana’s civil legal aid infrastructure, the Indiana Supreme Court is asking the General Assembly to allocate an additional $1 million to the court in the next biennial budget to fund civil legal aid efforts.
Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush presented her request for an additional $500,000 for civil legal aid in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 to the State Budget Committee on Monday afternoon. Currently, the state allocates $1.5 million to civil legal aid each year, an amount that has not changed since 2007.
The additional $1 million over a two-year period would be used to help close the justice gap, Rush told members of the Budget Committee. Pointing to the opioid crisis as an example of the need for civil legal aid, Rush said that once drug offenders are rehabilitated through the criminal justice system, they often find themselves in the civil system to address issues such as eviction or child support. She also gave the example of veterans unable to access their benefits without legal assistance.
But in Indiana, for every two such cases that can be accepted, one is turned away due to insufficient resources, Rush said. Allocating more funds to civil legal aid would help the judiciary train and pay additional lawyers to take on those cases, she said.
“The reason we’re asking for civil legal aid is really looking at and telling you that you will get a return on investment for this with regard to a healthy workforce, getting child support, getting benefits,” the chief justice said.
The court’s only other budget request was for cost of living adjustments.
Rush also used her presentation to highlight recent developments in court work, which she said were returns on investments from previous budget allocations. She pointed to the continued rollout of the Odyssey electronic case management system and electronic filing, telling the Budget Committee that e-filing will be implemented in 85 counties by the end of the year. Court technology initiatives — including Odyssey, Incite and intra-government data sharing — have been a driving factor behind previous budget requests.
Rush also highlighted access to justice initiatives, including the continued expansion of problem-solving courts and court advocate programs such as Court Appointed Special Advocates.
In all, Rush said the judiciary represents less than 1 percent of the total state budget, and that only half of the judiciary’s total budget is comprised of government funding. Last year the court was able to revert $1.8 million to the General Fund through savings that accrued when the court’s Office of Judicial Administration moved to a new location. The other half of the court’s budget comes from items such as fees and attorney registrations, Rush said.
Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik and Indiana Tax Court Judge Martha Wentworth also made presentations to the Budget Committee on Monday. For the COA, Vaidik requested an additional $155,237 for both fiscal years 20 and 21 to fund the addition of two new information technology employees.
“It’s great, we love computers — except when they don’t work,” Vaidik said.
The two full-time IT employees would provide technical support and training and would improve the court’s technology security, Vaidik said. Like many courts, the chief judge said her court has now transitioned to doing all of its work online.
Vaidik’s presentation also highlighted the court’s work product and community involvement. In addition to the several thousand opinions and orders handed down each year, Vaidik praised the court’s Appeals on Wheels program, noting that this year the court will have held 44 arguments on the road and has established a goal of visiting the last 10 counties it has yet to hear arguments in before the year is up.
“We are all, as Court of Appeals judges, we are very, very active,” she said.
Though Wentworth did not ask for any funding increases other than cost of living adjustments, she did speak to the Budget Committee about the work of her court, which she described as the most misunderstood court in the state and possibly the country. That’s because Wentworth sits in both a trial and appellate capacity, hearing and weighing evidence in some cases and reviewing existing tax decisions in others.
Wentworth said she has taken steps to modernize the functions of her court and increase its efficiency through the use of new Tax Court rules related to issues such as discovery disputes. Acknowledging the fact that there was a longstanding backlog of cases in the Tax Court during the first few years of her time on the bench, Wentworth said that backlog has since been alleviated using the new efficiency measures and court rules.
Looking to the future, Wentworth said she has been consulting with the Tax Section of the Indiana State Bar Association on possible legislation to further increase Tax Court efficiency, though she said she would not be the one to present such legislation to the General Assembly.