Counties again requesting additional judicial officers

The Indiana General Assembly is once again being asked to add to Indiana’s court roster, with six counties presenting requests for new judicial officers.

The Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary heard testimony Wednesday from judicial officers in Decatur, Hamilton, Hancock, Huntington, Knox and Lake counties. Hamilton County is seeking a seventh superior court, while the five other counties each requested a magistrate judge.

The requests came after the presentation of the 2019 Weighted Caseload report. The report reflects judicial “utilization” in each county — that is, the number of judges a county needs divided by the number of judges a county has. A perfect utilization would be 1.0 — where need equals judicial resources – while anything greater indicates overutilization of existing judges.

Decatur County topped the 2019 “Severity of Need” report presented by the Indiana Supreme Court Office of Court Services. Based on the formula, the Greensburg-based court system has 2.00 judges but needs 3.01 for a utilization of 1.51.

Decatur Circuit Judge Tim Day spoke of significant growth in child in need of services, criminal and domestic relations cases. He also noted that agencies including the local police and sheriff’s departments, prosecutor’s office and the Indiana Department of Child Services have devoted additional resources to their Decatur County work.

“Does that help us (courts)? No,” Day told the study committee. “More officers means more arrests, which means more criminal charges.”

“We are simply drowning,” he added.

Knox County ranks fifth in terms of 2019 severity of need. Based in Vincennes, the county has 3.00 judges but needs 4.15, for a utilization of 1.38.

The county suffered a tragedy within its judiciary in August when Superior Court Judge Ryan Johanningsmeier was killed in a small-plane crash.  The local Republican party and Gov. Eric Holcomb have since named a successor who will run unopposed on the November ballot.

Superior Court Judge Gara Lee told the study committee that the southwestern Indiana county court system would like to expand and improve its programming, such as expanding its pretrial release efforts under Criminal Rule 26. However, Lee added that it’s difficult to offer new services when the court is overwhelmed by its existing caseload.

Hamilton County follows Knox County in severity of need, also having a utilization of 1.38. The central Indiana donut county currently has 10.00 judges but needs 13.81.

David Najjar, judge of Hamilton Superior Court 5, noted the county government has already responded to the judicial need by creating a court commissioner position that will convert to a magistrate position next year. What’s more, Najjar said, Hamilton County is Indiana’s fastest-growing county and is steadily bringing in new business.

“That means more litigation, more business litigation, which is more complex,” he said.

Huntington County ranks 22 out of Indiana’s 92 counties in severity of court need. The county has 2.40 judges, needs 2.84 and has a utilization of 1.18.

However, Huntington Circuit Judge Davin Smith said that number doesn’t tell the whole story.

Like Hamilton County, the Huntington County government saw a need in the court system and offered a solution, Smith said: hiring a referee who works two days a week. Take away the referee, Smith said, and the county’s utilization goes up to 1.42 — the fifth highest in the state.

“That’s a short-term Band-Aid,” Smith said of the referee. “Even with that, we’re still overutilized.”

If Huntington County does not receive a new magistrate judge from the General Assembly, the judge continued, the county-funded referee will become a full-time magistrate judge.

Another donut county, Hancock County ranks 55th for severity, with a utilization of 0.98. The Greenfield-based courts currently has 3.92 judges and need 3.83.

Hancock Circuit Judge Scott Sirk said his courts want to convert a commissioner to a magistrate, not actually add a new judicial officer.

Commissioners don’t have the same authority as magistrates, Sirk noted — each of their orders must be reviewed and signed by a judge, thus creating additional time and work before an order can be entered. Magistrate judges, however, can independently enter final appealable orders.

Additionally, Sirk continued, the conversion of a commissioner to a magistrate judge would be an intermediate step on the county’s road to creating a fourth court by 2030.

Finally, Lake County ranks 64th out of 92 for severity. Indiana’s second largest county, northwestern Lake County has 34.40 judges and needs 31.52 for a utilization of 0.92.

The new magistrate judge would be designated for Lake Superior Court, County Division Room 4, where Judge Aleksandra Dimitrijevic presides.

Appointed in 2019, Dimitrijevic hears both civil and criminal cases. In her first year, she has implemented a driving while suspended program in her court and has launched a pilot program allowing inmates to converse with the court via videoconference. What’s more, local city and town courts cases have recently closed, and those cases have been transferred to her jurisdiction.

The study committee will vote at its next meeting on whether to recommend additional judicial resources for each county. It will then be up to the full General Assembly to make the final decision.

The 2019 Weighted Caseload Report and county requests can be viewed here.

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