6 counties seeking additional magistrates, judges, courts

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The Indiana House Courts and Criminal Code Committee gave unanimous approval Wednesday to a bill that would allow for the creation of new courts or judicial positions in six counties.

House Bill 1114,  authored by Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, passed the courts committee with a 13-0 vote and is now headed to the full Indiana House of Representatives.

The courts and judicial positions created under the bill would include:

  • One full-time magistrate judge for the Daviess Circuit and Superior courts.
  • One full-time magistrate judge for the Delaware Circuit Court.
  • The creation of a second superior court in Dubois County.
  • Four full-time magistrate judges in the Elkhart Circuit and Superior courts effective July 1, then two additional full-time magistrates effective Jan. 1, 2024.
  • One full-time magistrate for the Spencer Circuit Court.
  • One judge for the Vigo Superior Court.

Torr served as chair of last year’s Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary, before which county officials are required to appear and make a presentation before they can ask the full General Assembly for additional judicial resources. Torr said each of the counties included in HB 1114 met that requirement, but the interim study committee was unable to give its official approval to each of the requests because it did not have a quorum at its October meeting.

As part of its review, the interim study committee looks to the Weighted Caseload Measures report. Of particular interest is the Severity of Need report, which shows the difference between how many judges a county has versus how many that county needs based on its caseload.

The 2021 report,  which is the most recent available on the Indiana courts’ website, lists Clark County as having the most severe need, having 11.15 judicial officers — including elected judges, magistrate judges and commissioners — but needing 17.08.

Of the counties included in HB 1114, Vigo County is the highest on the severity list, taking the third spot. The county, which includes Terre Haute, has 7.89 judges and needs 9.34.

Current law only allows for five judges on the Vigo Superior Court, but HB 1114 would raise the number to six judges, for a net positive of one new judge.

Next is Dubois County, taking the No. 4 spot. The report shows the county has 2.20 judges but needs 2.48.

The bill would establish Dubois Superior Court 2.

Elkhart County is sixth on the 2021 report, having 11.32 judges and needing 12.53.

Judge Gretchen Lund of Elkhart Superior Court 4 testified before the House committee Wednesday, explaining that the county plans to convert a Title IV-D commissioner and a juvenile magistrate judge to full-time magistrates, plus add two new magistrates.

Current law gives the county two magistrates, but HB 1114 would raise that number to four. Then in 2024, the bill would allow the county to appoint two additional magistrate judges, for a total of six.

Lund explained that Elkhart County is in the middle of a court consolidation process. Judges currently preside out of two courthouses but will combine into one, she said. Also, the judges are planning to split into divisions: criminal, civil and family law.

The additional magistrate judges will aid the consolidation process by helping the courts move cases effectively and efficiently, Lund continued. She added that the county had not asked for additional judicial officers in 25 years.

Brad Rogers, president of the Elkhart County commissioners, also testified Wednesday, telling lawmakers that the county government supports the request for new magistrates. That can be crucial for lawmakers, who are often hesitant to add more courts and/or judges if local officials aren’t on board.

Rep. Joanna King, a Republican from Middlebury in Elkhart County, sits on the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee and also spoke in favor of the bill.

Even with the additional magistrate judges, Lund said her county would still be 17th on the severity-of-need- list.

Spencer County, which is seeking one magistrate judge, is No. 9 on the list, with a need for 1.41 judges compared to the actual 1.30 judges.

Delaware County is ranked 40th out of Indiana’s 92 counties, needing 6.45 judges and having 7.19.

Finally, Daviess is 55th, needing 1.99 judges and having 2.40.

Aside from Elkhart County, none of the counties included in HB 1114 sent representatives to testify Wednesday before the committee. Torr said he told those representatives they did not need to return to the Statehouse because they had already presented to the interim study committee.

HB 1114 will now head to the full Indiana House for discussion and possible amendment.

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