Supreme Court Addresses Access to Justice Issues in the Small Claims Courts of Marion County
May 2, 2012 by Editor
The Indiana Supreme Court recently sought the assistance of the Supreme Court Rules Committee and a specially appointed Task Force in addressing some potential access to justice issues in the Marion County Small Claims Court system. The matters were introduced to a national audience in an article appearing in the July 18, 2011 Wall Street Journal. It raised questions about some of the practices and procedures employed in these courts, including charges of “forum shopping” and concern about township trustee influence over the operations of the courts.
In all other Indiana counties, the circuit or superior courts hear and resolve small claims cases. In Marion County, nine divisions of the Marion County Small Claims Court system handle collection disputes and landlord-tenant matters with a $6,000 limit.
Chief Justice Shepard in January 2012 appointed a two-person Small Claims Task Force—Court of Appeals Judge John Baker and Senior Judge Betty Barteau, a former Court of Appeals Judge—to investigate allegations that the Marion County Small Claims Courts do not meet fairness and impartiality standards.
Both Judge Baker and Judge Barteau spent several years presiding over small claims cases. Judge Baker served as a Superior Court judge in Monroe County and Judge Barteau was Boonville City Judge in Warrick County. They each have extensive experience at every level of the judicial system. Chief Justice Shepard describes both as possessing “deep knowledge and understanding of the Indiana justice system and the crucial role of impartial courts.”
The Small Claims Task Force conducted three public hearings during which it sought comments from the public about the practices and procedures of the Marion County Small Claims Courts. More than 200 local residents attended these hearings, held on February 22 in Perry Township, February 29 in Pike Township, and March 7 in Marion Circuit Court. About 50 individuals—including collection attorneys, landlords, tenants, small claims defendants, law students, pro bono attorneys, and a state senator—testified before the Task Force. A certified court reporter attended each hearing to ensure a written, accurate transcript of the statements. The Task Force accepted additional written comments on the small claims courts until March 15 and is conducting a thorough research of the statues, rules, case law and other authorities relating to these courts.
The nine Marion County Small Claims Judges, under the leadership of Marion Circuit Court Judge Louis Rosenberg who has certain statutory responsibilities in regards to those courts, have also met and formed a plan of action in response to these allegations, including a plan to post brochures in all courtrooms detailing litigants’ rights and responsibilities. The Task Force hopes to complete the fact-finding process and submit any recommendations for rule changes to the Supreme Court’s Rules Committee by May 2012. Legislative recommendations will be forwarded to the Commission on Courts.