Bills for new judicial resources advance, but bid to cut Delaware Co. court draws ire

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A bill to add a court in Hamilton County and judicial officers elsewhere has passed the Indiana Senate, as has a measure to allow city and town courts to keep certain administrative fees. A measure to revoke a county court, however, is drawing pushback.

The Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed Senate Bill 380, sending it to the Indiana House of Representatives.

The bill would create a sixth Superior Court in Hamilton County and give one magistrate each to Decatur, Hancock, Huntington, Knox and Lake counties. The magistrates in Decatur, Hancock, Huntington and Knox counties would jointly serve the local circuit and superior courts, while the Lake County magistrate would be dedicated to Lake Superior Court Division 4.

Addition of these resources previously earned the endorsement of the Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary, which is the first stop for counties seeking to expand their court rosters. A similar bill that advanced out of the House, House Bill 1064, would provide the same judicial resources to the same counties.

But HB 1064 also contains a controversial provision that would allow the Legislature to eliminate the sixth Delaware Circuit Court scheduled to open next year.

On the House floor earlier this month, Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, told lawmakers that the Delaware County Council and county commissioners did not feel the county could fund an additional court. Democratic lawmakers, however, opposed that request, saying it would set a dangerous precedent.

Though SB 380 does not deal with Delaware County, Senate Bill 152 does.

Sen. Mike Gaskill, R-Pendleton, introduced legislation to eliminate the sixth Delaware Circuit Court, echoing Cherry in saying the Delaware County executive branch did not have the funding. He said local officials did not have a “firm grasp” on the legislative process for adding a new court, leading to the legislation to revoke the General Assembly’s grant of a new trial court.

As in the House, Democrats in the Senate opposed SB 152. Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he was the one who worked with the Delaware County courts to pass legislation creating the sixth court. But he was not consulted on the legislation to pull back that approval.

According to Lanane, the plan had been to move the Muncie City Court docket to the new Circuit Court.

“What’s happening is the County Council doesn’t want to fund this,” Lanane said on the Senate floor. “I don’t know where they were in 2019, 2020. I didn’t hear from them.”

In the House, HB 1064 passed with a 68-24 vote. It has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In the Senate, SB 152 passed 35-13. It has not yet been assigned to a House committee.

The final provision of SB 380 – which passed 47-0 – deals with city and town courts. Specifically, it would allow the clerks of those courts, or the judges of municipal courts without a clerk, to retain up to $3 in administrative fee overpayments. Current law allows only circuit courts to keep $3 of an excess payment.

Franklin City Court Judge Mark Loyd testified in committee that when a litigant overpays administrative fees, the clerk of the municipal court must send a refund, no matter how small. He recalled one instance where a check for 8 cents was sent out.

Those checks often come back, Loyd said, leaving the municipal court to determine what to do with the money.

SB 380 has been referred to the Indiana House but has not yet been assigned to a committee.

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