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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Ind. Decisions - State high court takes Clark County dispute

"State high court takes Clark dispute: Decision expedites probation-fees case" is the headline to this story today by Alex Davis in the Louisville Courier Journal. It begins:

A sometimes-bitter power struggle between the Clark County Council and the county's four elected judges over probation fees is headed for the Indiana Supreme Court.

The move to take the case from the Court of Appeals, approved Thursday in an order signed by Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard, is a sign that the dispute may be moving toward a conclusion after nearly two years.

The trial court in the case ruled in favor of the judges.

"This is a signal, at the least, that the Supreme Court believes the case has statewide implications, and that it is important enough to expedite the process," David Lewis, a lawyer for the judges, said in an interview.

The council and judges are enmeshed in a lawsuit over nearly $1.9 million in user fees generated by court-supervised probation programs.

The council argues it should be able to use the fees to pay for salaries and other court-related costs as part of the county's annual budget. The judges claim that they should control where the money is spent and that the council is overstepping its authority.

Council member Barbara Hollis said the court's ruling could affect the way all of Indiana's 92 counties spend public money.

More from the story:
Before the dispute arose in late 2004, the council and judges often agreed to use a certain portion of the fee money each year to pay for court-related costs. But faced with growing expenses over the last two years, the council has moved to appropriate almost all of the fee money to cover salaries and other expenditures without resorting to employee layoffs.

Clark Superior Court Judge Steve Fleece issued a statement Friday that said the council's actions have, over the course of 18 months, depleted a fund that took 20 years to build.

Fleece also wrote that the judges believe it is a violation of constitutional due process to have the salaries of court employees so dependent on fees paid by participants in probation programs.

"Would you like to be a defendant in a criminal court where if you don't get convicted, the court staff can't buy groceries?" Fleece asked.

In March the special judge assigned to the case, Elaine Brown of Dubois County, ruled that the council's actions were illegal and ordered all of the money to be returned to the judges, along with legal expenses. Because the calendar year is not quite half over, some of that money has been appropriated but not spent.

The council appealed Brown's ruling to the Indiana Court of Appeals, and some council members had indicated they would appeal again to the state Supreme Court if Brown's ruling wasn't overturned at the appellate level.

In a related matter, Brown issued an order last week requiring the council to dip into its general fund to pay for government expenses after the probation fees are depleted.

Lewis said the need for that may come quickly because only $45,000 in fees were available as of last week. He said a review of the county's finances — compiled for the judges by an accounting firm — shows the county will need $319,000 in extra money to shore up this year's budget once the probation fees are exhausted.

Hollis said she wasn't overly concerned with Brown's order last week. She called the statements from Fleece "unnecessary."

For background, start with this March 8th ILB entry, and this one from Nov. 3, 2005.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 7, 2006 05:55 AM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions | Ind. Trial Ct. Decisions | Indiana Courts