Although the Indiana General Assembly has unanimously supported a $1 pro bono surcharge tacked onto the state’s filing fee for civil cases since 2012, a bill that would have increased the amount to $3 did not get a committee hearing this session, raising alarm that the key funding stream for legal aid could run dry just as the need is growing.
Sen. Ronald Grooms, the author of Senate Bill 253, is struggling to save the legislation. The Jeffersonville Republican is trying to convince Sen. Ryan Mishler, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to include the filing fee in the state budget bill. Also, Grooms said he has talked to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s staff and is looking for a bill that could have the language amended into it during a conference committee hearing.
Still, Grooms is not optimistic. To get the filing fee through the Statehouse now, he said, will take “a field goal and a free throw.”
No one in the Statehouse voted against either the $1 filing fee when it was introduced in Senate Bill 235 in 2012 or the extension of the fee’s sunset to July 2022 which was part of Senate Bill 42 in 2017. This year, however, none of the legislators have been given a chance to even vote on SB 253 because Sen. Liz Brown, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not schedule the bill for a hearing.
“I still haven’t figured out Sen. Brown’s opposition,” Grooms said. “She didn’t speak to me. I don’t know what her opposition is.”
However, Grooms speculated Brown did not like the bill because “she doesn’t like the idea of pro bono. I don’t think she likes lawyers, and I don’t feel she likes me.”
Brown is an attorney, earning her J.D. degree the University of Iowa College of Law and is a solo practitioner at Brown Mediation in Fort Wayne. She was first elected to the Indiana Legislature in 2014.
Brown did not respond to a request for comment.
Grooms is scheduled to meet with Mishler on Monday to see if an amendment raising the filing fee to $2 can be inserted into the budget bill.
Attorneys and judges, including from Brown’s district in Allen County, wrote letters in support of the filing fee, according to Charles Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation, which administers the money for the pro bono efforts in Indiana.
“Sen. Grooms is a passionate champion for this and he continues to be a statesman and gentleman during this process,” Dunlap said.
Prior to drop in court filing that came as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the $1 surcharge was adding about $360,000 to the pro bono coffers each year. The filing fee is combined with the funds from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Account to provide nearly $1 million in annual support for Indiana’s statewide pro bono network.
However, the cut made in interest rates in 2020 to shore up the sagging the economy has slashed IOLTA revenues. Dunlap said the bar foundation has enough reserves to maintain funding levels through 2021 and the first half of 2022 but after that, the money could run dry just as low-income Hoosiers need legal assistance especially for evictions and foreclosures.
“It is vital,” Dunlap said of the pro bono filing fee. “As far as the bill itself, it did not get a hearing despite a lot of effort by a lot of people.”
According to a fiscal analysis of SB 253, the increase in the filing fee would generate between $609,796 and $855,824 in a year’s time.
The original version of SB 253 would have kept the phase-out date of the filing fee at July 2022. However, Grooms was prepared to amend the bill to reduce the surcharge of $2 and extend the sunset date to 2026. The senator said he had gotten eight members of the judiciary committee to support the amended bill but was still not able to convince Brown to bring it up for a hearing.
If language can be added to the budget bill, Grooms intends to keep the sunset date at July 2022. He then would come back next session and introduce a bill delaying the phase-out of the filing fee until 2026.
SB 253 has picked up bipartisan support since it was introduced. Sen. Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores, signed on as an author and Sens. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, and Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, joined as co-authors.