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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Ind. Courts - More on: "Mediation ordered in Clark fee dispute: Council, judges still wrangling" [Updated]

The ILB had a lengthy entry on the Clark County dispute between judges and the county council over legal fees on July 15th. That entry included this quote from a Fort Wayne Journal Gazette editorial:

Why should you care about a dispute between the Clark Couny Council and four elected judges? Because it could affect the way all Indiana counties spend public money. Due to the statewide implications, the Indiana Supreme Court has agreed to decide the case instead of leaving it in the Indiana Court of Appeals.
The entry also included these quotes from the Louisville Courier Journal:
A financial dispute between the Clark County Council and the county's four elected judges will grind on for at least another six weeks after the Indiana Supreme Court ordered the matter to mediation. * * *

Clark Superior Court Judge Steve Fleece said in a written statement that the fee case had become a "gruesome and costly stalemate," which he compared to trench warfare.

He said the mediation will not have any value as a legal precedent, either locally or in other Indiana counties.

"Both sides wanted clear guidance and finality," he said in the statement. "Neither side has obtained its objective."

Today Ben Zion Hershberg has this report in the Louisville Courier Journal:
Court-ordered mediation in a $1.3million legal dispute between Clark County's judges and the County Council has failed, leaving the Indiana Supreme Court to decide the case.

The dispute is over who controls hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees paid by people who were put on probation by the courts. In Clark County, the fees amount to more than $450,000 a year.

The case "has statewide implications," said David Lewis, the lawyer representing Clark County's four judges, who filed a lawsuit against the County Council last year.

All Indiana counties have courts that generate such fees from probationers — and county councils that often need more money.

Jim Smith, president of the Clark County Council, said county governments statewide are following the case. Any decision by the Supreme Court "certainly creates problems on either side," he said.

In its 2005 and 2006 budgets, the Clark County Council decided to fund 10 percent of general court operating expenses from the probation user fund, leading to the lawsuit by the judges.

The appropriation included paying 10 percent of the salaries and benefits of court reporters, court secretaries and bailiffs, and jurors' meals and other court expenses from the fund, Special Judge Elaine Brown of Dubois County said in a March ruling on the case.

Brown ruled that such appropriations without the judges' permission violate state laws that give county judges control of probation user fees, since the fees are generated by the courts and not by county taxes.

State law says the County Council must follow county judges' guidance on how probation funds are to be used each year, Brown said.

She also said the council's decision to use probation fees for general court costs rather than probation departments could create ethical issues. Judges could feel pressured to convict more people who then could be put on probation to generate fees to support the courts, she said.

"The decision of the Clark County Council to use probation user fees to fund the most basic court operations has created just such a denial of due process for a person accused in Clark County," Brown said.

She ordered the County Council to repay the courts what was spent on court costs, other than probation expenses approved by the judges.

Smith said the council appealed Brown's ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court because the repayment would have a large impact, and because the council wanted guidance in time to develop the 2007 budget, which was completed last week.

The 2007 budgets for the courts generally follow the same approach as the two previous years, he said.

After Brown's ruling, the state Supreme Court ordered mediation sessions in an effort to settle the dispute. Smith said the last of two sessions with a mediator from Indianapolis was held Sept. 1.

Geoff Davis, an administrator for the Indiana Supreme Court, said the court has been notified by the mediator that he was unable to resolve the dispute.

Because of the case's unusual nature, there is little history to indicate how the court is likely to handle it, Davis said.

"I can't tell you what the next step will be," he said.

Here is the status according to the docket in the case (10 S 00 - 0606 - CV - 00199):
8/28/06 -- MEDIATOR'S REPORT OF FIRST MEDIATION SESSION (6)
CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE (2) MAIL KS
8/31/06 --ISSUED THE ENCLOSED ORDER:
8/31/06 -- WITH A REMINDER TO THE PARTIES THAT THE COURT EXPECTS THE MEDIATION PROCESS TO PROCEED WITH ALL DUE DELIBERATE FOCUS, THE COURT APPROVES THE REQUEST OF THE MEDIATOR TO EXTEND THEMEDIATION TO SEPTEMBER 1, 2006. THE MEDIATOR SHALL FILE ANOTHER REPORT, PURSUANT TO A.D.R. 2.7(E), NO LATER THAN SEPTEMBER 11, 2006. THE TRIAL COURT CONTINUES TO EXERCISE LIMITED JURISDICTION IN THIS MATTER FOR THE PURPOSE OF RESOLVING ANY DISPUTES THAT MAY ARISE IN CONNECTION WITH THE MEDIATION PROCESS AND DOING THOSE THINGS OTHERWISE NECESSARY AND PROPER TO FACILITATE THE MEDIATION PROCESS, AND THIS COURT CONTINUES TO RETAIN JURISDICTION OVER THIS MATTER IN ALL OTHER RESPECTS.

RANDALL T. SHEPARD, CHIEF JUSTICE MS
9/05/06 -- ****** ABOVE ENTRY MAILED ****** RECEIVED BY CLERK 9/5/06
9/05/06 -- MEDIATOR'S REPORT OF SECOND MEDIATION SESSION (6) CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE (2) MAIL. JS

[Updated 9/11/06] Here is an AP version of the same story.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on September 10, 2006 12:13 PM
Posted to Indiana Courts