Study committee supports judicial requests in 6 counties

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Courts in six Indiana counties have received a favorable recommendation for additional judicial resources after a unanimous vote by the Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary.

Representatives of Decatur, Hamilton, Hancock, Huntington, Knox and Lake counties will next take their judicial requests to the full General Assembly when it reconvenes in January. Hamilton County is seeking a seventh superior court, while the other five counties are each requesting an additional magistrate judge.

The favorable recommendation by the study committee came Friday after county representatives presented testimony on their judicial needs last month. Their requests came alongside the presentation of the 2019 Weighted Caseload Report, compiled by the Indiana Supreme Court Office of Judicial Administration.

According to the Weighted Caseload Severity of Need report, Decatur County leads the state in need for judicial resources. The Greensburg courts have two judges but need 3.01, for a utilization of 1.51.

A perfect court utilization would be 1.00, while anything greater represents a judicial deficit.

Among the other counties seeking additional court resources this year, Knox County ranks fifth in the state (1.38), Hamilton County sixth (1.38), Huntington County 22nd (1.18), Hancock County 55th (0.98) and Lake County 64th (0.92).

A favorable recommendation from the interim study committee does not guarantee that a county will receive the resources it’s asking for, though the committee’s recommendation does weigh into the General Assembly’s consideration. Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, informed committee members on Friday that from a fiscal perspective, some working within the Legislature have questions about counties’ true need.

For example, Steuerwald said, some counties have a “need” of half a judge in the context of the severity of need report. Union County, for example — which ranks last among Indiana’s 92 counties for severity of need — has one judge but needs 0.40.

In the context of the counties seeking additional resources this year, both Hancock and Lake counties have a utilization of less than 1.0. The Greenfield courts have 3.92 judges but need 3.83, while courts in Indiana’s second-largest county have 34.40 but need 31.52.

Speaking to the study committee last month, Hancock Circuit Judge Scott Sirk noted his county wants to convert a commissioner to a magistrate judge, not create another judicial position. The conversion would be an intermediate step on the county’s road to creating a fourth court by 2030, Sirk said.

In Lake County, the requested magistrate judge would be designated for Lake Superior Court, County Division Room 4, where Judge Aleksandra Dimitrijevic presides. She spoke of the growth of programs in her court and the added caseload coming from recent city and town court closures.

As the General Assembly considers requests from counties with a utilization of less than 1.00, Steuerwald said those counties might receive greater scrutiny.

On the Senate side, Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, noted he’s had conversations about court requests with Sen. Ryan Mishler, the Bremen Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. Mishler indicated in those conversations that future court requests will likely be limited to budget years, Koch said.

The upcoming 2021 session of the Indiana General Assembly will be a long session, which means the biennial budget will be drafted and approved. However, additional court resources were granted last year, which was a non-budget year, Kock noted. That practice will likely be discontinued.

The full county requests and weighted caseload report are available here.

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