Judicial officials make pitch to add magistrate

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HANCOCK COUNTY — Two of the county’s judges, the court commissioner and other county officials visited the Statehouse last week to discuss converting the court commissioner position into a magistrate, which carries more judicial responsibilities.

Three judges now hear cases in the county courts. A fourth judicial officer, Court Commissioner Cody Coombs, conducts hearings and even oversees trials. But his position doesn’t come with the full powers vested in the judges.

Local officials spoke before a legislative summer study committee last week and asked state lawmakers to make the change, which would have to be done through legislation in the Indiana General Assembly. County officials had submitted paperwork in support of the move in June.

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Judge Scott Sirk, who oversees Hancock County Circuit Court, said during the presentation that the county was not looking to add a fifth judicial officer, which had been speculated on earlier this year. The judges told lawmakers caseload numbers indicated this would be the best move.

“Converting our court commissioner to a state magistrate position will increase Hancock County’s judicial efficiency and will help the county prepare to add a fourth court by 2030,” Sirk said.

Sirk noted the court commissioner does not have the same authority as a magistrate and cannot enter final appealable orders, which increases the number of steps the commissioner and judges must complete in such cases. A judge must review the commissioner’s work.

“These extra steps have at times caused delays in cases and confusion among the parties and court staff,” Sirk said.

Magistrates, on the other hand, can enter final orders on their own. Having a magistrate position would allow judges to spend more time hearing and deciding cases rather than reviewing and countersigning orders that have been issued by the commissioner.

The county’s population — which is nearing 80,000 — is one of the fastest-growing in the state and has added more than 14,000 housing units in just one year, Sirk noted.

Hancock County Superior Court 1 Judge Marie Castetter also spoke during the presentation in favor of adding the magistrate but said the county could use the court commissioner’s position as well.

“While I am supportive of having a magistrate position, converting the commissioner’s spot to magistrate will have very little effect on my courtroom,” she said.

State court case records from 2019 show the county had 2,455 new misdemeanor and criminal cases and 2,175 new civil infractions filed. Those numbers are down from 2018, when there were 2,745 new misdemeanor and criminal cases and 2,753 civil infractions. In 2017, there were 2,666 new misdemeanor and criminal cases and 3,403 civil cases filed.

Still, Castetter maintains having an extra judicial officer would allow the courts to hold more hearings and provide litigants with resolutions sooner rather than later.

“Especially as we are navigating through the pandemic where the courtroom has to take time after each hearing to sterilize the court and there is a backlog of criminal cases waiting to be brought into court,” she said.

The Indiana Constitution provides for justice to be accomplished speedily and without delay, so the courts should strive to promptly serve the public, Castetter noted.

“If there comes a point where we do need five, we will move for that,” Sirk said.

Coombs, who was also part of the presentation, agreed having a magistrate would decrease delays and confusion associated with cases where other judges must get involved because of his limited duties.

“It cleans up a lot of confusion in the background and frees up the other judicial officers, who can then spend more time on their own cases,” he said.

The magistrate position would be funded by the state; the county funds the commissioner’s position. Sirk noted it would be nice to have the money currently going to the commissioner’s position available for other court needs, which could include raises for court staff. However, he said that’s not the sole reason for requesting the conversion of the position.

The committee next meets on Oct. 16 and could make a recommendation then. The proposal then would be written into a bill. If approved, the magistrate — who would be appointed by the three elected judges — could be in place by late summer 2021.

The county’s proposal has the backing of State Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield; and Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield; as well as county council members Bill Bolander and Jim Shelby, who both attended the meeting to show support.