Study panel urges new courts, magistrate judges in 6 counties

A legislative study committee has given a favorable recommendation to the Indiana General Assembly to add new judicial resources in six counties.

The Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary voted Thursday to recommend new courts and/or magistrate judges in Delaware, Marshall, Hamilton, Jennings and Gibson counties. It also reapproved last year’s recommendation for the creation of two additional circuit courts in Clark County.

Hamilton, Jennings and Gibson counties are each seeking a new magistrate judge, while Delaware County has requested a new circuit court and Marshall County has requested a new superior court.

Lake County also submitted a request for a magistrate judge to join the Lake Superior Court, County Division Room 4. However, at the request of Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-Gary, the study committee did not vote on the Lake County request, giving county officials more time to coordinate and garner support.

Study committee chairwoman Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, also did not call a vote on a request for additional judicial resources in Knox County, which Houchin said provided the committee with limited information and no testimony. She urged Knox County officials to gather more information about the county’s needs and return to the study committee at a later time.

The requests were given favorable recommendations largely without fanfare, though there were some negative votes.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, voted no on the Marshall County request, lamenting that counties such as Marshall say they have a severe drug problem, yet do not use resources such as drug courts or Recovery Works to address that problem.

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, voted against the Hamilton County request, saying both of the county’s magistrate judges — who are appointed, not elected — are white, while statistics show a growing minority population in the Indianapolis suburb.

Earlier in the Thursday meeting, committee members discussed the creation of a “scoring mechanism” that could be used as a reference point when legislators are determining which counties should receive additional judicial resources. The study committee approved a list of nine factors to be included in that mechanism, including, at Taylor’s request, whether an individual county emphasizes diversity on its bench.

Both Steuerwald and Taylor said they reserved the right to change their negative votes once the judicial requests come before the full General Assembly.

Generally, the Legislature will only approve a new court or magistrate if the request receives a favorable recommendation from the study committee, while study committee members often look for local support when evaluating requests.

Clark County’s two-court request received a favorable recommendation from the Courts and the Judiciary Study Committee last year, but the Legislature declined to allocate additional judicial resources to the Ohio River county north of Louisville.

In addition to local support, the study committee also looks to data recorded in the Indiana Supreme Court’s Weighted Caseload Report when deciding whether to favorably recommend a judicial request. Specifically, members look to a county’s “utilization,” or the relationship between the number of cases filed and the number of judicial officers available.

The most recent Weighted Caseload Report, amended April 12, shows utilizations of:

  • 1.13 in Delaware County
  • 1.24 in Marshall County
  • 1.27 in Hamilton County
  • 1.33 in Jennings County
  • 1.41 in Gibson County
  • 1.30 in Clark County

Knox County has a utilization of 1.37, while Lake County’s utilization is 0.90. (A measure of 1.0 means, on average, a caseload equal to the number of judicial officers. Therefore, a measure of 1.10 means a county has a caseload 10 percent greater than the available judicial officers.)

While approving the study committee’s final report, Steuerwald added language into the report that urges consideration of the elimination of courts in counties where there are more judicial officers than needed. He said some counties have double the officers they need when looking at caseload data.

With favorable recommendations from the study committee, county officials’ next step is to bring their requests to the full Legislature, starting in either the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee or the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Video from Thursday’s meeting can be watched here.

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