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Friday, June 28, 2013

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court rules Center Twp. Small Claims Court to stay in City/County Bldg.

In In Re Mandate of Funds for Center Township of Marion County Small Claims Court Order for Mandate and Mandate of Funds, a a15-page, 5-0 opinion, Justice Rucker writes:

This is a mandate action involving a dispute between the Center Township of Marion County Small Claims Court and the Center Township Trustee and Advisory Board over court renovations, additional staff, increase in salaries, and the location of the court. As explained below we approve the renovations, additional staff, and the mandate prohibiting the relocation of the court. We disapprove the mandated salary increases. * * *

In most Indiana counties, small claims cases1 are heard as part of the “small claims docket” of the County Circuit or Superior Courts. See Ind. Code § 33-29-2-4. Marion County operates differently. * * *

In essence, the Marion County small claims courts are township-level judicial entities; and for some time there has been tension between these courts and the township governing bodies with regard to control of court activities. The busiest of the township courts is that in Center Township, which receives approximately 14,000 case filings annually. Center Township encompasses central Marion County, including downtown Indianapolis and the nearest suburbs. * * *

I. Location of the Court

The Township urges that the decree ordering the Small Claims Court to remain in the City-County Building and directing the Township to provide reconfigured space and new furniture and equipment should be reversed. * * *

As we previously observed, an overriding issue presented in this case is the fundamental question of access to justice. Indeed, providing such access is a constitutionally-mandated function of Indiana courts. See Ind. Const. art. 1, § 12 (“All courts shall be open; and every person, for injury done to him in his person, property, or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law. Justice shall be administered freely, and without purchase; completely, and without denial; speedily, and without delay.”). It is undisputed that the Small Claims Court is presently centrally located in Center Township and is in close proximity to all (and within easy walking distance to most) public bus routes in the township and Marion County. Further, there is no dispute that the court is located in the same building as multiple other Marion County Courts and public services frequently used by litigants. We also find it relevant that the court in this case, as with most small claims courts, hears a substantial volume of consumer collection cases and landlord-tenant disputes such as evictions. * * * And it is also worth noting that the Center Township Small Claims Court is not only in the same building, but is on the same floor as courts handling paternity and child support, domestic violence, and protective orders – services also of particular relevance to this demographic.

In sum, we conclude the record is replete with probative evidence that moving the Center Township Small Claims Court away from its present location poses a clear and present danger to access to justice for the litigants it serves, and that maintaining and upgrading the Court in its present location is reasonably necessary to preserve that access. And although the Township does not object to other components of the special judge’s decree, see Br. of Appellants at 40, we think it bears emphasizing that we specifically affirm the special judge’s order that the Township shall allocate funds to hire two additional Court employees, that the Trustee shall relinquish control over Court functions, and that authority over its employees and its financial operations shall be vested solely in the Court. See supra n. 6; see also Task Force Report at 19, 24, 25 (concluding that township courts must have sole authority over their employees and their financial operations).

II. Attorney Fees

Finally, we address attorney fees. Because the proper delivery of judicial services is often at stake in Trial Rule 60.5 proceedings, we have acknowledged the propriety of reasonable compensation for attorneys who represent courts in such matters. * * *

On review the Township makes no claim concerning the reasonableness of the fees and expenses requested, reserving any such issue for an evidentiary hearing before the special judge. Instead, in a one-paragraph argument, the Township contends “This Court should deny Judge Scott’s fee request.” Br. of Appellants at 51. The Township’s contention is premised on the fact that over and above her statutory salary, Judge Scott also received additional revenue for performing wedding ceremonies in her capacity as a judge. According to the Township Judge Scott’s motivation in issuing the order of Mandate was to prevent the Court from relocating in an effort “to preserve and protect her own personal stream of income.” Id. We make the following observations. First, although the special judge determined that “[o]ne consideration” for Judge Scott not wanting the Court to relocate to the Carson Center was the potential loss of wedding income, the special judge specifically found, “[t]he concern that Judge Scott’s Mandate Action was motivated by a perceived loss of wedding income results from speculation and is unsupported by credible evidence.” App. at 26 (emphasis added). Second, and more importantly the question here is not Judge Scott’s motivation, but rather whether mandate was necessitated by a clear and present danger of impairment of the court’s operation. See St. Joseph Cnty. Cmm’rs 929 N.E.2d at 710. As recounted above, there was sufficient evidence presented to the special judge that the mandated action was reasonably necessary for the operation of the court and court-related functions, and that any other governmental interests were not so severely and adversely affected by the order as to require Order of Mandate be set aside. See In re Assignment of Courtrooms, 715 N.E.2d at 375; Morgan Cir. Ct., 550 N.E.2d at 1304.10 We therefore affirm the special judge’s decree concerning attorney fees and expenses.

Conclusion

We affirm the decree of the special judge.

Dickson, C.J., and David, Massa and Rush, JJ., concur.

ILB: For background, see this thorough ILB post from Jan. 26, 2013, and this one from Nov. 12, 2012, containing links to the documents.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 28, 2013 12:29 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions