Thursday, March 1, 2007

Madison County needs a new court

This post has the distinct possibility of turning into a rant. My apologies if it does, but this is something that I must say.

Madison County, Indiana has four courts for family law cases- Circuit Court and our three Superior Courts. There is also what we call IV-D (that is 4-D) court for child support cases handled by the child support enforcement prosecutor, but that court does not really matter with this discussion. All four courts have one commissioner . The commissioner is a lawyer appointed by the elected judge to hear cases. I used to estimate 99% of all family law cases are heard by commissioners, but that percentage declined when our courts started using senior judges. I will continue to wager that the regular judges hear less than 1% of family law cases in Madison County. (A slight digression - this percentage is probably accurate for most counties without a family law court and is nothing peculiar to Madison County.) Still there remains a huge delay in some of these courts for a hearing date. I see the problem as having two components: 1) space and 2) time.

Four courts means four courtrooms. There are also two hearing rooms. That leaves six rooms for hearing cases, right? Wrong. Circuit Court, Superior Court 1 and Superior Court 3 have criminal jurisdiction. Mondays are devoted wholly to criminal matters. The other days may have criminal trials. Mondays leave one courtroom and two hearing rooms available for civil cases. During the rest of the week criminal matters dictate availability of court space for civil matter.

Nothing will change the precedence given to criminal matters unless we want to amend the federal and state constitutions. I do not advocate any such changes.

Unifying all the courts into a Circuit Court with six divisions is mentioned from time to time (as in about every year there is a race for the Circuit Court judgeship). The idea has some good points in its favor. People favoring the unification point to Muncie and how the Delaware County courts consolidated their Superior Courts and Circuit Court into one Circuit Court with divisions. I am not in Muncie as much as I used to be but I do not see any great problems with their system. I do see a cost that does not get mentioned - the courts employ two full-time commissioners to handle family law matters. Besides the cost to the county for paying their salaries, the commissioners must leave their private practices. Finding that combination in Madison County might be a bit difficult.

Not that Madison County need worry about unifying its courts any time soon. Between the legislative politics needed to get approval for the unification and the politics between the judges in Anderson, it will not happen any time soon.

Frankly, another court will not be added any time soon. The General Assembly would need to pass a statute allowing the court. Besides there would need to be space available in the Madison County Government Center and I cannot see where that will be found.

Looking to Muncie does provide another alternative to ending our backlog of family law cases. The Delaware Courts designate Fridays as their family law day. They have what we call a cattle call - all the cases are set at 9:00 am and they take the cases as they are ready. The procedure helps move the smaller cases - the child support modifications, the contempt cases, the uncontested divorces, the parenting time modifications - quickly through the system. If I recall correctly, the Muncie courts started this procedure before their unification. Putting such a system in place here in Anderson means a good deal of cooperation between our Superior Courts and our Circuit Court. Actually, the system could be put in place with just the Superior Courts and it would still be a great benefit for the parties.

I know that something must be done. Our Superior Court 2 is swamped and I do not see any great difference in the other Superior Courts. All this slows down the adjudication of cases and raises the annoyance level in the clients.

No comments: