Friday, January 22, 2010

Courts Cost Money

For those wanting to understand a bit more the courts in your life, and for those who think we need judicial reform (particularly child custody matters), this post is for you.

Indiana's Chief Justice must give a yearly State of the Judiciary speech to the Indiana General Assembly. From The Indiana Lawyer's report on his speech, Chief justice: courts handling the tough times, I latched onto the following paragraphs:

The chief justice encouraged lawmakers to support any measures designed to help the judiciary collect all revenue that the law says is due from court operations so that it can go directly to state and county budgets that need it. Because requests for new courts and judges just aren't reasonable because of the economic state, the chief justice urged lawmakers to support legislation that would allow retired magistrates to also work as senior judges to ease local caseloads.

Additionally, the chief justice recommended that lawmakers support legislation that would create a framework for new veterans' courts, problem-solving courts that would allow the judiciary to better deal with those with special disabilities stemming from military service pressures. This would mimic what's already been done with drug and re-entry courts, he said.

"This bill has no fiscal note at all, and indeed the net of these three ideas is revenue positive," he said, adding to a message that the judiciary will do all that it can to assist in these tough times.

Chief Justice Shepard also pointed to areas the judiciary has worked on during 2009: a statewide electronic protective order registry system is enacted in every county, and hundreds of law enforcement agencies have used the e-citation system implemented in the past year. He also pointed out the 1,112 attorneys and judges who've been trained to help in mortgage foreclosure cases, and that the judiciary will soon put facilitators into foreclosure-settlement sessions to help. In addition, the number of new volunteers trained as court-appointed special advocates in 2009 increased 26 percent over 2008.

He also spoke about how the state's judicial branch is about ready to unveil new statewide jury instructions that will be easier for non-attorneys to understand and how a statewide assessment tool for juvenile offenders in the Department of Correction has been adopted.
Even if there was a role for a court to act in a more policeman role, that is a more activist role, there is no money for them to do so.

Even more specifically about family law and judge, The Indiana Lawyer published State funding of judges being explored
Lawmakers rejected a southern Indiana county's request this week for a new judge to run a family court, even though it proposes paying for it locally rather than with state money. But in declining to attach the magistrate-turned-judge idea to another bill, a House committee said it wants to keep talking about the issue that could be a policy-altering move in how Indiana pays for its trial court judges.

The House Judiciary Committee approved HB 1154, which would allow Marion County to convert its 24 appointed commissioners to magistrates that hold the same responsibilities but would be able to consider a wider range of issues within each court. The county proposes paying the $2.3 million for those magistrates with a $35 fee tacked on to traffic infractions, which has been collected since 2004 and is by law turned over to the state general fund. The fee initially went into place to pay for jail overcrowding costs, but that issue has been largely resolved and the fee isn't used for that anymore. Now, the state's largest county wants to use that money to save the state from having to pay for the county magistrates or pay for adding new judicial officers.

Committee members voted 11-0 in support of the idea, but not before voicing hesitation about a proposal by Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, to amend the legislation so that Bartholomew Superior Court could also convert a commissioner position into a new Superior judgeship starting in July 2011.

This would allow the county to convert a current commissioner, who hears only child support non-payment cases, to a judge that could hear all family-related case types. Bartholomew Circuit Judge Stephen Heimann proposed using the same kind of funding mechanism as Marion County is proposing in its commissioner-to-magistrate conversion - using a fee of at least $20 on traffic infractions that would go to the state general fund. If anything fell short of the estimated $150,000 needed, the county would be responsible for making up the difference. An estimated $189,000 per year could be raised from the fee, and be applied not only to the judge's salary but also benefits, Judge Heimann said.

Even without this having a state fiscal impact, Rep. Trent Van Haaften, D-Mount Vernon, questioned why the proposed amendment didn't call for a commissioner-to-magistrate change as Marion County's proposal did, but rather a commissioner-to-judge. In response, Judge Heimann said it was specifically because the county needed a new family court and needed a judge's authority to hear all of those issues that might come before it.

Just in case anyone thinks this only an Indiana problem, give a read to The Future of Divorce in MN
The court system is in a financial crisis. This crisis has been articulately described by Chief Justice Eric J. Magnuson in highly publicized interviews he has given to the media. I have read some of his interviews, and I have to say that I think he is right. (I also have to disclose that, technically, I work for the Minnesota Supreme Court. My license to practice law is granted by the Minnesota Supreme Court, and in some sense Chief Justice Eric J. Magnuson is my “boss.” Regardless, I feel that he is right and I think that anyone who has an interest in the Minnesota court system should make known to their legislators how important it is that the court system be adequately funded.)

In a practical sense, the lack of funding effects every person who is getting divorced in Minnesota. The court filing fee is now $400. It could increase. It costs $100 to file a motion in divorce court, and it even costs $25 to send a fax to the court. These are the costs that are easy for people to recognize.

However, there are other costs. The funding for child custody and parenting time evaluations in Hennepin County has been reduced significantly. Now, judicial officers are talking about parties using private evaluators. Private evaluators typically charge thousands of dollars for a custody or parenting time evaluation.
Unpaid, overworked describes every court I know of.

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