THE ISSUE: Clark County courts are overburdened and under-resourced.
OUR VIEW: The need for more judicial officers is urgent, but solutions cannot be rushed.
If you’ve visited the second floor of the Clark County Government Center in recent years, you’ve probably picked up on what studies prove to be true: the Clark County court system is woefully under-resourced.
In fact, the county’s four circuit courts are some of the most overburdened of Indiana’s 92 counties, according to the 2017 Indiana Weighted Caseload Measurement Study. That study says Clark County’s eight judicial officers (four judges and four magistrates) are doing the work of 11.
With too few judicial officers and courts, everything from traffic infractions to civil disputes and murder cases get stuck in the system for undue months and years. That means legal matters go unresolved, victims are denied timely closure brought by justice, and defendants, who are presumed innocent until proven guilty, sit in jail waiting for their day in court.
Efforts to solve this problem and to solve it quickly are to be commended. But to do so without thoughtful consideration of the challenges facing the county, namely a lack of available space for two new courts and the staff they’d require, is irresponsible and risks causing more problems.
In January, Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Austin, filed House Bill 1155, which calls for two additional Clark County circuit courts and judges, effective July 2021. That would get the county’s number of judicial officers closer to the recommended 11 and allow local officials more than two years to determine how to split up caseloads, identify additional staff needs and find a place for the two new courts.
In hopeful preparation for 2021, commissioners ordered a feasibility study in December to determine space needs (the government center on Court Avenue holds all four circuit courts, magistrate offices, the Clark County jail and county government offices). That study recommended the county pursue a new build and relocate all county government offices. Last month, commissioners sent out a request for proposals for contractors to build a roughly 30,000 square-foot government center with an architect to be selected by the end of April.
Plans had been set in motion. And then the county was thrown a curveball:
After the bill passed the house and went through Senate committee, co-sponsor Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown, authored an amendment that pushes up the timeline for the new courts to this summer. The new judges would be appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb and be seated July 1. To spread out the courts’ election cycles, the first election for the new positions would be in 2024.
Garten said there was no reason to wait. “We’ve got to ease the pain of these four circuit courts right now,” he told the News and Tribune. Clark County Circuit Court No. 1 Judge Vicki Carmichael said the courts are needed, “but we need the time to make it work.”
From where will these new appointed judges work? Where will they hold hearings? Over which type of hearings will they preside?
And beyond logistics, there’s the question of allowing the governor to appoint two judges for what amounts to a five-and-half-year term. The amended bill does not detail how the governor should go about selecting the judges, both of whom would certainly benefit from Holcomb’s approval come the 2024 election.
The need in Clark County is urgent, but tasking an overburdened court system to scramble to figure out the logistics of adding two new courts, two new judges and any needed additional court staff in a matter of a few months risks throwing the system into further chaos. And putting the fate of the county court system in Holcomb’s hands for the next five plus years needs further examination and discussion, at the very least.
Rep. Goodin, Sen. Garten and all the bill’s co-authors (among them Rep. Rita Fleming, D-Jeffersonville) and co-sponsors (including Sen. Ron Grooms, R-Jeffersonville) should pump the brakes on the amended version of House Bill 1155. If they are to legislate for the needs of their constituents, they have a responsibility to understand the challenges and realities they face. Rushed fixes, regardless of how well-intentioned, are not in the interest of justice.
— The News and Tribune editorial board members are Publisher Bill Hanson, Editor Susan Duncan, Assistant Editors Chris Morris and Jason Thomas, and Digital Editor Elizabeth DePompei.