Omnibus bill week 2011: Indiana HB 1266 would restructure trial court jurisdictions

Necessity is the mother of invention, or, in recent history, trial court consolidation. Last year, it was Vermont consolidating its Probate, Family, and District Courts into the state’s Superior Court. This year, it looks like New Hampshire will be the state to attempt outright trial court consolidation into a new Circuit Court. Indiana, however, may achieve much of the same effect through HB 1266.

Circuit, Superior, and Probate Courts

Indiana has three types of “general” jurisdiction courts: the constitutionally created Circuit Courts, the statutorily created Superior Courts, and (in St. Joseph’s County only), a statutorily created Probate Court. For an overview of what counties have what (and why this came about) the Indiana’s Judiciary has a “Know Your Courts” review and interactive chart.

Circuit and Superior Courts have, generally, the same jurisdictions with respect to civil and criminal matters (as the Indiana Judiciary’s website notes, the differing names are “due to accidents of legislative history and local custom, not true differences in the nature or purpose of the courts.”) Rather than differing from court type to court type, the real difference is in counties. “The cases these courts hear can vary tremendously from county to county.”

HB 1266 would effectively end these distinctions. All circuit courts, superior courts, and probate court(s) would have:

  1. original and concurrent jurisdiction in all civil cases and in all criminal cases
  2. de novo appellate jurisdiction of appeals from city and town courts; and
  3. in Marion County, de novo appellate jurisdiction of appeals from township small claims courts

County-level Circuit Court Consolidation

Some Indiana counties have but Circuit and Superior Courts, although as noted the judges of these courts exercise essentially the same jurisdiction (for a list of who has what, click here) HB 1266 would consolidate the Superior Court judges in three counties (Clark, Henry, and Madison) into the Circuit Court.

County Courts

Indiana had, at one point, justice of the peace courts, juvenile courts, criminal courts, and magistrate courts, many if not most presided over by non-attorneys. In the 1970s these courts were consolidated into County Courts, but those courts themselves eventually gave way to presence of the Circuit and Superior Courts. The last County Court was abolished by their respective counties in 2009 (The state still maintains City and Town courts). HB 1266 would repeal the statute authorizing the County Courts altogether.

Merit Selection

At least some of the aforementioned County Courts were not utterly disbanded and were instead made into divisions of the county’s Superior Court. The result was a somewhat electoral patchwork quilt: while in general the Superior Court judges of a particular county might be elected in a one fashion (partisan election, merit selection) the County Division judges might be elected another. Lake Superior Court County Division had such a split: Superior Court judges were selected via a merit selection system, but the county division remained partisan elections. HB 1266 would reconcile the two, putting county division judges into the existing merit selection system.

Retirement Age for Judges

Presently, Superior Court judges have a mandatory retirement age of 70 or 75 (depending on which county). HB 1266 would eliminate the mandatory retirement age for all Superior Court judges.

Commission on Courts

The state’s Commission on Courts was created to consider policy involving the court systems and the creation of new courts. It makes recommendations to the legislature on its own initiative and may also be directed to examine issues at the direction of the legislature. (For details, click here). The statute authorizing the Commission is set to expire June 30, 2011. HB 1266 would extend it until June 30, 2015.

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