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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ind. Courts - "Bill puts Sullivan County in danger of losing judge position"

This very long, fascinating story, well reported by Lisa Trigg of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star (as reprinted in the Indiana Economic Digest), tells a lot about the power of legislative committee chairs, local politics, and the county courts. It begins:

Sullivan County is in danger of losing one-third of its judicial officers in a state legislative move that reportedly took the county’s judges by surprise.

Sen. Brent Steele of Bedford has called the position of Sullivan County Magistrate an unneeded appointment that could be eliminated to free up money for a judge in another county. Steele has introduced Senate Bill 58, which sailed through the Senate and now awaits a hearing in the House committee on Courts and Criminal Code. That bill seeks to eliminate the Sullivan Magistrate as of July 1.

Sullivan County judges, however, say that the magistrate position is needed, based on the proximity of the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility at Carlisle.

On the surface, the bill has been presented as a cost-saving measure. The legislation also looks at eliminating one of two judges in Pulaski County. That northern Indiana county also shows a need for fewer judges, based on caseload statistics. However, Senate Bill 58 sends the Pulaski judge cut to a summer study commission for further investigation and possible elimination in 2019.

The politics at work in the Sullivan magistrate issue also brings out what some have said is a power move by the weaker Republican Party in Sullivan County to sow discord among the office-holding Democratic Party.

The controversy might be seen as the playing out of some local rivalries, and it highlights how small-town politics can play out in a bigger venue when the right people are willing to listen.

At a February hearing on the proposed bill, Steele told the Senate Judiciary Committee that a review of courts statewide shows that some counties are in desperate need of more judges to handle the heavy caseloads on their dockets. Sullivan County, however, is one of a few counties in Indiana whose statistics show that there are more judges than needed.

Steele said during the committee meeting — which was recorded and is available for viewing online at iga.in.gov — that he feels the legislature could use the same procedure it does to create a court to, in reverse, eliminate an under-utilized court as a cost-saving measure for the state.

The bill’s financial impact statement explains that eliminating the Sullivan County magistrate will save the state $158,135 starting in 2016, based on the 2014 salaries and benefits for magistrates and judges.

Steele cited the state’s most recent judicial review statistics from 2013 that show the county has three full-time judicial officers but needs less than two, based on the weighted caseload system.

“People higher up in the food chain in this Statehouse have asked me to give this bill a hearing,” Steele can be heard saying on the video-recording of the hearing. “I have no idea who these judges are, and I have no idea what their politics are. I could care less.”

However, as the committee hearing progressed and he questioned the current Sullivan County judges about their caseloads, Steele did seem to go on the attack against current magistrate Robert Springer, questioning the hours that he worked and whether he even shown up at the courthouse.

At the beginning of public statements, the committee heard statements from Billy Springer — no relation of Magistrate Robert Springer. Billy Springer has served as chairman of the Republican Party in Sullivan County for the past 20 years. Billy Springer’s statements were followed by comments from current judges Bob Hunley and Hugh Hunt, who both took office on Jan. 1.

Springer called his home county a “dying county,” referring to the declining coal mining industry and the population loss since the 1960s. Springer also stated that the majority of the court action going on in the Sullivan County involved the community hospital filing small claims against “everybody in the county.” Springer cited the local newspaper when said he counted 74 small claims filings by the hospital in one week.

“It’s kind of a joke in the coffee shop,” Springer said. “We sit in there and count them.”

He claimed that the courtrooms in the courthouse are seldom busy, and that the small claims cases are handled by attorneys who try to make payment arrangements with the people being sued.

“If you take those out, we wouldn’t qualify for one judge,” Springer claimed.

He also said that he has “a gripe” with the way magistrates are chosen, claiming that it’s a “buddy system” with the county judges taking care of their friends and appointing someone to serve as magistrate.

“We just need one judge, not three,” Springer said.

Later in the story:
The previous magistrate — Ann Smith Mischler — served 15 years as magistrate before leaving that appointed position at the end of 2014.

She told the Tribune-Star that the magistrate is very busy, but that may not show up in the court statistics.

“I would hate to see Sullivan County lose the magistrate position, and I think the citizens of Sullivan County are very well served by the position,” Mischler said.

She explained that the civil cases that come out of the prison are time-consuming. Many of the filings from the inmates are done pro se, that is, an inmate advocating on his own behalf. He may be requesting some relief from his sentence or some other matter that can be considered by the court.

“It may take 30 to 40 minutes to review if written by an attorney,” Mischler said, “but if written by an offender it may take me three hours to puzzle it out.”

She said she was surprised to find out about Senate Bill 58 and thinks that any consideration of cutting the position is worth more study.

More from the story:
Following Billy Springer’s statements to the senate committee, judges Hunley and Hunt stepped up to address legislation that they said was a recent surprise to them.

Hunley noted that Magistrate Robert Springer had been left behind in Sullivan County to handle all of the court cases scheduled for that day.

Hunley explained to the committee that he had served as prosecutor for the previous six years, and had served a total of 19 years in the county prosecutor’s office. He said that the addition of the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility to the county, with its 2,000-plus inmates, has added to the court caseload.

The county courts have handled three death penalty cases, all arising from prisoner-on-prisoner crimes, he said, and there have also been recent stabbings at the prison that will be charged through the prosecutor’s office.

Hurley said he has concerns that WVCF is the sixth largest correctional facility in the state, but a plan is now under consideration to expand the prison by 800 beds. That will mean more court filings and cases to prosecute.

“My position is that we do need it,” Hunley said of the magistrate position. He asked the committee to take time to study the caseload report and look at trends during the time the county has had a magistrate.

Judge Hunt also told the committee he has found that some cases that have been disposed were not properly recorded in the annual judicial report. That makes him feel that the caseload numbers may not have been reported correctly.

Sen. Steele questioned Hunt about the hours that Magistrate Springer works. Hunt responded that Springer works full time, Monday through Friday, in the courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse.

Steel said he has been “hearing from people” that Springer is not coming to work, and that “this guy takes long periods of time off, and he’s doing this just to pad his retirement.”

Hunt defended Springer, saying that the magistrate handles divorces and small claims cases for both courts.

“In the six weeks since I’ve taken office, I consult with him on a daily basis,” Hunt said of Springer.

Steele returned to the 1.71 caseload number for three judges, and said that two judges ought to be able to handle the caseload.

“You guys, if you’ll just buckle up to your caseload, you’ll be able to do what you need to do,” Steele said.

The senator said that other counties have need for more judicial officers, and the caseload statistics back up that need.

“What are we supposed to say to them?” Steele queried.

Hunley said that one area he plans to look into is an agreement with the Vigo County court system to check on a long-standing agreement that sends some Vigo County cases to Sullivan County to eliminate some of the backlog in Vigo County.

There is much more in the Trib-Star story. The ILB actually heard the entire Senate Judiciary committee discussion of the bill, Senate Bill 58. It took place Feb. 18th in Room 130. Here was the agenda. Note that SB was added to the agenda late.

You can watch the video of the Feb. 18th meeting by going to this page and then using the pull-down menu to select Feb. 18th. The discussion of SB 58 begins at about 00:24:30. (BTW, The bills were not discussed in the order set out in the agenda.)

Although Lisa Trigg's story covers a lot of what went on at the meeting, there is so much more to learn from the video.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on March 17, 2015 01:26 PM
Posted to Indiana Courts