Judges in Hamilton County bear state’s highest caseload, requesting help

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For the past year, Hamilton County officials have been working to get help with its increasing court caseload. Now, the request is ready for state approval at the start of 2020.

The Hamilton County commissioners, council and prosecutor approved resolutions during the summer supporting the addition of a new magistrate judge. There currently are three in the county. In August, the request was formally sent to the state for review by the Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary.

On Oct. 17, that committee voted in favor of hiring a new magistrate.

State Rep. Donna Schaibley (R-Carmel) said she plans to author legislation for the  legislative session that begins in January to support the addition of a magistrate. If approved, the new magistrate will aid the county’s six superior court judges and circuit court judge for large cases’ preliminary hearings and cases that involve minor offenses.

Judge William Hughes, who has been the county’s Superior Court 3 judge since its creation in July 1988, said the process is normal when communities and counties grow. Statewide, the population growth rate is approximately 2.5 percent. Hamilton County’s rate the past decade is 17 to 18 percent.

“We have come to be the fourth-largest county in the state. We are projected to be the third-largest county in the state by the end of the decade and the second-largest by 2050 if our current rate of growth continues,” Hughes said. “This is a good thing, but with people come cases that require court intervention. We are way behind everybody else. The next closest county to us has one judicial officer for every 16,000 people. We have one person for every roughly, 29,500 people.

“We have half as many judges as the county closest to us (in population, Allen County).”

All Indiana judges work under what is called a Weighted Caseload Measure, which sets the rate caseload per judge.

“It was an effort years ago to quantify how much judicial time could be expected to be used for a specific case type,” Hughes said. “Take the number of those cases filed with the amount of time that’s necessary and divide it amongst the judicial time that’s available. Everybody in our county is at about 1.3, (meaning) of the 10 people we have, we really need somewhere between 13 and 14 to do the work based on the amount of time available and the kinds of cases that are filed. That puts us in a high-need position. At least since 2015, I would say (is when) we started seeing an increase in our weighted caseloads.”

The limited space available in the judicial center in downtown Noblesville is another challenge for the county.

“We have a wonderful judicial center, but it is pretty full. There isn’t a lot of room left,” Hughes said. “The addition of judges is something that is a very good thing for us to do but is probably not going to be able to be dealt with until we deal with space. That’s getting more and more critical all the time. If we didn’t have this space issue, we probably would have requested more (judges) this time than we did. I think you will probably find us requesting more in a couple of years and thereafter.”

Hughes said the inability to meet the need and the ever-increasing amount of cases isn’t for lack of trying. Judges often work long hours through the week, but Hughes said processing cases is still falling behind.

“The biggest (issue) is probably in the delay there is to get something done,” Hughes said. “Our pending caseloads have not kept pace with where they should be, based upon the new filings. We’re working hard, but we’re not getting things done as quickly as we were.”

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