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Friday, May 08, 2015

Ind. Courts - "Marion County small claims court wrongly charged for weddings despite new rules"

Kara Kenney had the story last evening on WRTV 6. Here is a report, with video. Some quotes from the lengthy story:

INDIANAPOLIS -- A hidden camera investigation revealed the Warren Township Small Claims Court has been charging couples for weddings, despite new rules banning the practice.

The rules, which went into effect Jan. 1, say judges can’t charge a fee if a wedding ceremony is performed on court premises and during regular court hours. * * *

Center Township Small Claims Court Judge Michelle Scott resigned last year amid allegations she used government resources to promote a private wedding business she ran with her husband.

In response to Scott’s case, Marion County adopted the new rules for its small claims courts and how they handle weddings.

In March, the Call 6 Investigators took hidden cameras into all nine small claims courts in Marion County to see if they were following the new wedding rules.

Most townships either don’t charge, or don’t perform weddings at all.

“I don’t do marriages during the week anymore after the fallout of some of the stuff that happened in Center Township Small Claims Court,” Pike Township Small Claims Court Judge Douglas Stephens told a Call 6 staffer.

But Warren Township on Indy’s east side did try to charge for a wedding.

“It’s an $80 ceremony fee,” a court employee said.

We went back a week later to make sure.

“$80 ceremony fee,” the same court staffer said. “We accept cash, money order or credit card.” * * *

[Warren Township Small Claims Court Judge Gerald Graves] and other small claims court judges gave their own input into the wedding rule-making process.

Our initial requests to interview Graves were ignored, so we showed up at court to get his response.

“Prefer not,” Graves said when asked if he would talk about why the court was charging for weddings.

A week later, Graves agreed to sit down for an on-camera interview.

“I was aware of the rule as proposed, but I was unaware the rule had been passed,” Graves said. “There’s been a lot of rules changes since 2012.”

Graves admitted he was part of the rule-making process but said some of the sources he uses to look up rules, such as LexisNexis, contained old information on weddings.

However, the Indiana Supreme Court website did have the correct information.

Judge Graves acknowledged it is his responsibility to know the rules.

“Yeah, I admit the rule as proposed and passed was not being followed,” he said. “It was inadvertent, it was not intentional.”

Documents show the money charged went into the township fund.

In response to our findings, Warren Township refunded the $400 to couples who wrongly paid for weddings.

Refund letters sent to couples said the fees prior to Jan. 1 were set at $80.

“Unfortunately, I was unaware of a rule change that came into effect on January 1, 2015, which removed this fee for marriage ceremonies,” read Graves’ letter to couples. “The rule change came to my attention on March 13, 2015, and therefore, I have enclosed a refund of the $80 fee that you paid for your marriage ceremony. I apologize for any inconvenience that this situation may have caused you.” * * *

Judge Sheryl Lynch now oversees small claims courts in Marion County, taking over for Judge Louis Rosenberg who retired at the end of the year.

“We as judges are expected, just like the citizens of Marion County, to know what the rules are,” Lynch said. “From my heart, I do believe it was an honest mistake, because as judges we have a lot of rules and a lot of case law that we have to keep track of.”

The wedding rules also state that if a couple asks about a paid wedding, the court staff cannot recommend any particular officiant, including the judge.

But the Call 6 Investigators found the Wayne Township Small Claims Court handing out flyers advertising the judge’s weekend wedding business and $125 fee. * * *

Marion County is the only county in Indiana with separate small claims courts.

ILB: Another excellent investigative report from Kara Kenney.

This April 17th ILB post explains that for years now the Supreme Court has urged that the Marion County small claims courts be transitioned into a unified section within the civil division of the Marion County superior courts.

Instead, as the ILB reported on April 29th, this 2015 General Assembly passed a bill that will raise the nine Marion County small claims judges' salaries, make them full time positions, turn the courts into courts of record, and in my opinion will make it virtually impossible to integrate them into the county court system in the future.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on May 8, 2015 09:20 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts