Merrillville municipal judge loses summary judgment appeal in litigation over court’s closure

  • Print
Listen to this story

Subscriber Benefit

As a subscriber you can listen to articles at work, in the car, or while you work out. Subscribe Now
This audio file is brought to you by
Loading audio file, please wait.
  • 0.25
  • 0.50
  • 0.75
  • 1.00
  • 1.25
  • 1.50
  • 1.75
  • 2.00
IL file photo

In the continued litigation over whether and when the Merrillville Town Court should be shut down, the court’s judge has lost his appeal of a summary judgment ruling in favor of the town council’s passage of an ordinance that provides guidance on the court’s eventual closure.

Judge Eugene M. Velazco Jr. was appointed judge of the Merrillville Town Court in December 2019 — the same month the Merrillville Town Council adopted an ordinance to abolish the court for financial reasons, according to the Post-Tribune. Velazco had been chosen to succeed Judge Gina L. Jones, who was appointed to the Lake Superior Court in October 2019.

The town court was set to cease operations on Dec. 31, 2020, but two weeks before then, Velazco sued to stop the closure, alleging the council didn’t follow state law in adopting the closure ordinance.

In January 2021, Lake Superior Judge Bruce Parent entered a preliminary injunction keeping the town court open until the case was heard on the merits, though he also ordered Velazco to “begin the winding-down” of the court.

Then in July 2022, while the case was still pending, the council presented on first reading a new ordinance to close the town court effective Sept. 30, 2022.

Velazco moved for a rule to show cause, and while the trial court denied that motion, it also ordered the council to leave the closure date open-ended “as a closure date will be largely dictated by things outside the control of this Court and these parties; specifically, the operations of the State of Indiana under [] Administrative Rule 10, the operations of Tyler Technologies (Odyssey) which will be required to perform a computer build-out to facilitate both closure and the transfer of data, and the implementation of that computer build-out by [the Lake County Clerk of Court].”

The ordinance was subsequently amended to remove the closure date and to provide that the clerk-treasurer, Lake County clerk of court and Indiana Office of Court Services would be given detailed instructions on winding down the town court. Velazco was involved in the amendment process and ultimately agreed to the final language, according to the Court of Appeals.

The amended ordinance was presented on second reading and was passed in October 2022.

Three months later, Velazco filed a new lawsuit against the town council claiming the amendments “were so substantial and material as to require that the Ordinance be presented as a new ordinance on first reading, as opposed to second reading, on October 11, 2022.” That case was consolidated with the original case, and the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

The trial court ultimately granted summary judgment to the council, finding that “the only new language (in the amendments) was transitional wording, aimed at how the COUNCIL and the JUDGE are to go about the process of winding down and closing the Town Court.”

Velazco appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed in a memorandum decision, although it didn’t reach the merits of his argument.

“Here, the complained-of conduct is the Town Council presenting the amended ordinance on second reading rather than starting the process over and presenting it on first reading. But ‘[t]he prohibition against making material and substantial changes in a pending ordinance without notice thereof appears to be directed toward preventing the public from being misled by the publication of the pending ordinance in its original form,’” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote, citing State ex rel. Blackwell v. Hatcher, 426 N.E.2d 118 (Ind. Ct. App. 1981).

“There was no risk that Judge Velazco would be misled,” Vaidik continued. “He was not only aware of the amendments to the ordinance; he participated in drafting them and ultimately agreed to them.

“Therefore,” she concluded, “he didn’t suffer, and was not in immediate danger of suffering, a direct injury as a result of the amended ordinance going straight to second reading, and he lacks standing to complain about that procedure.”

The case is Hon. Eugene Velazco, Jr., Judge of the Town Court of Merrillville v. Town Council of the Town of Merrillville, b/a/t President Rick Bella, Kelly White-Gibson, Clerk-Treasurer of the Town of Merrillville, and Michael Brown, Clerk of the Lake Circuit/Superior Court (mem. dec.), 23A-MI-1679.

Velazco, a Democrat, ran unopposed for the Merrillville Town Court bench in November.

His case in state court, No. 45D11-2012-MI-836, is set for a status conference on Jan. 16.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}