If you’ve ever been cited for violating a local ordinance, odds are you’ve ended up in a city or town court.
Whether it’s a noise violation, a parking ticket or maybe even a misdemeanor offense, Indiana’s city and town courts preside over many of the state’s lowest-level offenses. Not every county has a city or town court, but about 60 operate statewide.
The benefit of municipal courts, proponents say, is that they help the often-overworked county judges keep the dockets moving. Even so, about 10 city or town courts have been abolished in about the last five years.
Financial strains seem to be the biggest driver of closures, though discipline against the presiding judges has also led a small number of city courts to shut their doors.
A high-level judicial committee has recommended abolishing city and town courts altogether, claiming doing so would make the judicial system easier to navigate. But supporters of these small tribunals say the closures could have disastrous consequences on the state’s judicial system.
Unlike trial courts, municipal governments are vested with the authority to create city/town courts without going through the Legislature. That means the courts are locally funded, said Kyle Noone, judge of the Elwood City Court and president of the Indiana Association of City and Town Court Judges.
In Noone’s courts, litigants can bring any of the three case types heard by city courts — ordinance violations, infractions and misdemeanors. Some city/town courts may only hear two of those case types, Noone said, opting not to take misdemeanors. But none will hear anything higher than a Class A misdemeanor charge.
That means in city court, the highest case a judge might hear is something similar to a domestic battery, while the lowest issues could be akin to a tall-grass violation. These cases are naturally less complex than the felony charges that come before circuit and superior courts, Noone said, so often, city court cases are resolved quickly.
Mark Spitzer, judge of the Grant Circuit Court, practiced in Marion City Court during the early days of his career, and he said there’s a vast difference between bringing a case in city court versus circuit court. In city court, there might be 30 trials on any given afternoon, with plea negotiations made on the fly.
“It’s quick justice,” Spitzer said.
“Quick justice” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Spitzer said. Indeed, in Grant County, the judge said the city court judges handle a “significant” caseload that includes most misdemeanors. If those courts — one in Marion and one in Gas City — were to close, Spitzer said there is concern about how the Grant County courts would absorb their caseloads.
Those types of concerns underscore the benefit of city and town courts, Noone said, opining that the benefit is for judges and litigants alike. Judges benefit, he said, by having lower-level offenses moved off their dockets, while litigants benefit by appearing before a jurist who has time to take their case seriously, even if it’s relatively minor.
Even so, the Strategic Planning Committee of the Indiana Judicial Conference has recommended abolishing all city and town courts and folding them into the county court system. Spitzer, who is currently co-chair of the committee, said the idea of closing the city courts would be to make the judicial system easier to understand.
City courts sit under the circuit courts, with Noone referring appeals to the Madison Circuit Courts. But litigants don’t always understand the difference, Spitzer said, noting the Grant County courts frequently get calls from litigants who think they’re taking their case to the county courthouse, but instead learn they have to take it to a city court.
“The thinking is, if you simplify the different places, if there are less places to consume justice … that makes the whole system more equitable,” Spitzer said.
In Allen County, Judge Frances Gull, who also sits on the Strategic Planning Committee, said the emotion she’s seen from litigants is less confusion and more frustration. When dealing with the New Haven City Court, which closed at the end of 2018, Gull said citizens would grumble about the time it took for their cases to process through the city court, just to be sent to superior court. The New Haven City Court operated under a system in which a case would be transferred to the superior court if an offender requested a jury trial on a traffic violation.
But more crucially, Gull said she has concerns about city court judges sentencing offenders to incarceration, evicting them from their homes or entering financial judgments against them when the judge is not a lawyer. A 2015 law now requires city/town court judges to be lawyers, but existing non-lawyer judges were grandfathered in.
“The Strategic Planning Committee believes that all Judges should be law-trained, licensed attorneys,” Gull wrote in an email to Indiana Lawyer.
Noone, however, said in his experience, there’s been little confusion among litigants about city versus county courts, adding that litigants receive the benefit of coming to a local court, rather than driving to the county seat. He’s opposed to the idea of closing all city courts, echoing Spitzer’s concern that doing so would put a heavy burden on superior and circuit court judges.
“I think it would bring the justice system in several counties to a halt,” Noone said, including his own Madison County in that prediction.
That wasn’t necessarily the case when the New Haven City Court closed, though. The Allen Superior Misdemeanor Division absorbed both the active and inactive cases, which included a caseload of less than 100, Gull said. Thus, the impact to the Allen County courts was “minimal,” she said.
Likewise in Miami County, this year’s closure of the Bunker Hill Town Court had a “minimal, at best” impact on Miami County justice. The county still has the Peru City Court, Judge Dan Banina said, but neither court handled much more than traffic tickets.
What’s more, both Banina and Gull said prosecutors kept many, if not all, cases out of the now-closed municipal courts. That affected the financial stability of the courts, and that reality — coupled with a disciplinary action against the New Haven judge — led the municipal governments to pull the plug.
While financial considerations contributed to the closure of those two municipal courts, Noone said finances actually weigh in favor of keeping city and town courts open.
“I think county councils are going to jump out of their seats at the increase in expenditures, as far as budget goes in taking on these caseloads,” the Elwood judge said of the possible closure of municipal courts. “… The idea of judicial efficiency will be eliminated by the overwhelming caseload that’s going to be placed on the justice system in each county.”
From Noone’s perspective, the Hoosier city/town court community is actually growing stronger. Another city court is set to open in 2020, he said, while the Indiana Association of City and Town Court Judges has been revamping its outreach efforts over the last two years.
Those efforts have included a push for funding for public defense in municipal courts and earned Noone a seat on the Special Courts Committee, the first time a municipal judge has been asked to serve on the committee.
But with differing views within the legal community on what the fate of city and town courts should be, the judges say they know who the decision will come down to.
“We sort of put a vision out there,” Spitzer said of the Strategic Planning Committee’s proposal, “so it’s up to the General Assembly to decide if they agree.”•