Committee endorses new Hamilton County court, magistrates for 3 counties

Four Indiana counties are one step closer to adding judicial officers or a new court after winning the approval of a legislative committee.

The House Courts and Criminal Code Committee on Tuesday approved legislation and an amendment to add a seventh superior court in Hamilton County and one magistrate judge each in Decatur, Hancock and Huntington Counties.

All four counties also received support for their judicial requests in the Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary. Judges testified that quickly growing populations and caseloads necessitate the need for extra judicial resources.

In Hamilton County, Superior Court 2 Judge Jon Brown said if approved, the seventh superior court would open Jan. 1, 2023, with an election to the judgeship in 2022. The county is Indiana’s fastest growing and is No. 6 for judicial need among the state’s 92 counties.

The 2019 Weighted Caseload Severity of Need Report shows that Hamilton County needs 13.81 judicial officers but has 10.

“Our goal is to make our approach as efficient as possible for our citizens and to get cases heard in a reasonable period of time,” Brown told committee members Tuesday. “We need (enough) judges to be able to accomplish that task.”

The judges of the Hancock County bench were not able to testify before the committee due to their packed caseloads, according to Rep. Bob Cherry, the Greenfield Republican who presented the Hancock County request for a magistrate.

The Hancock County bench currently includes three judges and a part-time commissioner, Cherry said. During testimony in the study committee, Judge Scott Sirk said the goal was to convert the existing commissioner into a magistrate judge in preparation for the creation of a fourth court in 2030.

The 2019 Weighted Caseload Report ranks Hancock County 55th for severity of need, having 3.92 judges and needing 3.83. However, an inputting error means the county’s need is actually higher than reported, Cherry said Tuesday.

In Huntington County, there are two judges and one part-time referee, according to Circuit Judge Davin Smith. He called the referee a “Band-Aid” meant to help work through a backlog of cases in the county.

Huntington County ranks 22nd in the Severity of Need report, with 2.4 judges but needing 2.84. Take the part-time referee out of the equation, Smith said, and the need rises significantly.

Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, noted that the Huntington County Jail is experiencing overcrowding. Adding a magistrate judge, he said, would help alleviate the overcrowding by moving defendants through the criminal justice process more quickly.

Attached to the Huntington County bill was an amendment to allow for the creation of a magistrate judge position in Decatur County. The Greensburg courts received support for a magistrate judge in the study committee, but a bill was not drafted.

Like Huntington County, there are two judges who preside in Decatur County, though the southeast Indiana county does not have a commissioner or referee also on the bench.

Decatur County topped the 2019 Severity of Need Report, having two judges but needing 3.01.

Superior Judge Matthew Bailey said his criminal docket has seen significant growth since he took the bench in 2009. That year, there were 857 criminal cases filed in the county. By 2019, there were 1,672, and the number was close to 1,500 in 2020.

The Decatur County amendment was approved and the Huntington County bill was unanimously passed, as were the bills for Hamilton and Hancock counties. Those bills will now be recommitted to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Leonard’s Huntington County bill also passed with a second amendment, this one to take away a court in Delaware County.

Rep. J.D. Prescott, R-Union City, explained to the committee that the Delaware County Council passed a resolution asking the General Assembly to strike language from statute that would allow for the creation of a sixth Delaware Circuit Court. The sixth court was not set to open until 2023, Prescott said, but the county council has been unwilling to pay for the additional court since the beginning.

Though the amendment passed, concerns were raised about the precedent the Legislature might be setting in striking the Delaware County language. Rep. Wendy McNamara, the Evansville Republican who chairs the committee, said she had hoped a judicial resolution would present itself, but none did.

Bloomington Democratic Rep. Matt Pierce raised concerns about a “yo-yo” effect wherein the Legislature approves courts then takes them away.

“I think we need to think through precedent and create some parameters” for when a county has to pay for a court versus when plans to add a court can be abandoned, Pierce said. McNamara charged him with researching that issue.

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