By James F. Maguire | Editor, Indiana Court Times
Addressing the Needs of our Customers
On January 16, 2019, Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush delivered her fifth address on the State of the Judiciary to a joint session of the Indiana General Assembly. Highlights of the speech follow:
The Supreme Court Justices and Appellate Court Judges were greeted by escorts from the House and Senate, including Representatives Jerry Torr, Wendy McNamara, Lisa Beck, and Ragen Hatcher and Senators Eric Koch, Aaron Freeman, Greg Taylor, and Lonnie Randolph. Over 70 trial court judges, special guests, members of the media, and elected officials from all branches of government were present. Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch called the session to order.
Chief Justice Rush reported that the state of the Indiana judiciary is “sound, steady, and strong.” Before her address, those gathered in the House Chambers saw photographs of judges from all 92 counties, standing in front of their courthouses open to those seeking justice.
Rush noted that each day, 600 Indiana judges serve as problem solvers for the people involved in 1.3 million new cases filed last year. These people are neighbors, employers, people we see at the ball park, church, and grocery store. They are not anonymous case numbers.
The Chief Justice highlighted the need for an independent judiciary that adapts to meet the needs of its customers. “It’s not common for us to call court users customers,” she said. “Justice is not for sale, and we don’t have a product that can be changed to satisfy the needs of every person. But what we do have is a constitutional charge to provide open, accessible, and fair courts.”
Then-Chief Justice Randall Shepard’s vision from 25 years prior to make the judiciary “cheaper, faster, simpler” has made great strides. In 1987, he boldly announced that courts would accept paperwork via fax machine for the first time, laying the foundation for today’s electronic filing and the half-million electronic documents submitted each month.
In addition, Shepard proclaimed that Indiana would have a statewide network of volunteer lawyers to provide assistance to customers who can’t afford a lawyer. In 2017, nearly 8,000 attorneys provided time for volunteer legal services. The Supreme Court continues efforts to find more ways to help customers through the Coalition for Court Access.
Public Health Epidemic
Last year, Chief Justice Rush pledged judicial branch action to attack the epidemic of substance abuse and addiction. The Supreme Court partnered with the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, Indiana University Addictions Grand Challenge, and the Association of Indiana Counties to host an Opioid Summit in July 2018.
The Chief Justice proudly stated “with all 92 counties in attendance, 1,000 of us rolled up our sleeves; and as only Hoosiers can, we got to work.”
Teams of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, law enforcement, correctional officers, health professionals, and local officials brought strong resolve to join the fight.
Teams took home tools on the science of addiction and which treatments work, models for family recovery courts, how to connect people to care, jail-based treatment programs, workforce development, program opportunities, and how to share data.
Chief Justice Rush added, “we will sustain the momentum this year with trainings and workshops throughout Indiana to continue to bring community-based solutions to this scourge.”
Marion County Superior Court Judge Bill Nelson tragically lost his son to an opioid overdose in 2001. His heartbreaking story opened the Opioid Summit. Rush offered praise for Nelson, noting that he takes the bench everyday trying to keep other families from suffering such a loss.
The Chief Justice noted that our courts have several other important initiatives dealing with addictions. One year prior, Indiana had only seven Family Recovery Courts. Today, there are 18 courts that are certified or in the planning stages.
She reported that judges in these specialty courts work with many community partners “to create a path for parents with addiction to work toward safe reunification with their children, thereby and preserving their families.” Rush proudly noted that her colleague, Justice Christopher Goff, led a Family Recovery Court when he was a trial court judge in Wabash County.
Rush thanked Governor Eric Holcomb for his support of Family Recovery Courts. “Governor Holcomb, thank you for getting behind this initiative. The impact of your support is enormous.”
Approximately 135,000 cases in Indiana courts involve children—matters like divorce, paternity, delinquency, support and custody, adoption, child welfare, and termination of parental rights. Over one-third of Indiana children live in single-parent households and almost 60,000 are being raised by grandparents. Indiana is also one of the top states in the country with children whose parents are incarcerated.
Last year, the Chief Justice met with Hoosier educators who expressed concern for students who are shuttled from house to house, parent to parent, and its impact on their education and well-being. Rush highlighted a few of the many effective tools judges have to address the challenges facing our Indiana families.
The Parenting Time Calendar is an online application that follows the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines and works in concert with the Department of Education’s school calendars. Rush added, “Providing a conflict-free, predictable schedule through our electronic calendar simplifies the process for families—our customers.”
This past year, the Child Support Calculator assisted in the collection of nearly one billion dollars through court-ordered child support. Fulton County Judge Christopher Lee is leading a regular review of Indiana’s Child Support Guidelines. As part of the review, the judges and lawyers on the Domestic Relations Committee look at the fundamental needs of children—food, health care, education, clothes, and housing.
The Chief Justice recognized Judge Lee’s commitment to ensuring the Guidelines review is fair. “Mothers and fathers in real world situations sent us letters and emails and came to our State House courtroom to explain what they need from the Child Support Guidelines. Judge Lee delivered the message these customers deserved: ‘Your voice will be heard.’”
Chief Justice Rush shifted her focus to Court Technology, stating “Quality court customer service depends on reliable and useful technology.”
Courts now are accessible 24/7–they no longer close their doors at the end of the day. There is court access after-hours with the ability to pay fines and file cases. Rush added, “Court customers don’t have to miss work, leave family, stand in line, pay postage, or make copies to pay a traffic ticket, file a case, or learn about a court date.”
The Chief Justice provided rapid-fire statistics showing the achievements in court technology:
- 80% of the state’s new caseload is in the Odyssey case management system.
- More than 6 million users visited the mycase.in.gov website more than 20 million times last year.
- Over a half-million court documents are electronically filed each month, and 25 million pieces of paper have been saved.
- Nearly 350,000 text messages sent to criminal defendants in 40 counties to remind them of their next court hearing.
Criminal Justice Reform
Chief Justice Rush noted the need for safe and effective ways to manage local jail populations. Many people are awaiting trial and are without resources to post a bond.
She elaborated, “Even if you are a low-risk, non-violent offender, you sit in jail—you may lose your job, your entire family suffers while you await trial—and the county taxpayers foot the bill. At the same time, a high-risk offender who has access to cash and posts bond is back on the street within hours of an arrest. Why do we keep doing this?
Last year, 99% of Indiana jails were at capacity—some counties were at 250% capacity, and half of the statewide jail population is awaiting trial.”
A vital step in tackling the criminal justice issues of pretrial release and bail reform is to examine pretrial detention. Chief Justice Rush posed the question, “What happens once a person is arrested? Here’s one example. In Monroe County this past year, a 20-year-old man was brought to court for a drug-possession charge. His parents were willing to help him, but not by bailing him out of jail.
They told Judge Mary Ellen Diekhoff that they feared he would simply be released and use again. But instead of languishing in jail, the Monroe County pretrial team coordinated his release straight to treatment, giving him a much better chance at recovery and a path to avoid re-arrest or overdose.”
Rush praised the pretrial efforts of Monroe County, where over 90% of those released made all of their court appearances and were not re-arrested. 31 counties are researching, developing, and implementing pretrial best practices.
She proudly noted, “Our pretrial efforts are joined with the expansion of problem-solving courts. By the end of this year, we should have over 110 courts, representing a 40% increase in just the last three years … We are very proud to say 85% of all Indiana problem-solving court participants remained arrest-free last year. We are working hard to close that long-standing revolving door back into the criminal justice system.”
The Chief Justice highlighted the Commercial Court Pilot Project, now in its third year. “It’s no secret: a strong, predictable court system is good for our state’s businesses and workforce, and in turn, good for our economy. That is why we developed the program with support from the business community.”
Rush provided a specific example of the benefits of a Commercial Court. In Marion County, participating Judge Heather Welch presided over a case involving two large corporations who were at loggerheads over a contractual dispute regarding leasing provisions. Millions of dollars were at stake and these businesses needed prompt decisions. After just 143 days, this complicated case was resolved. Today these corporations, Simon and Starbucks, are developing new business ventures together.
Civil Legal Aid
At the opposite end of the spectrum commercial cases are those where no lawyer is present, and a person is left to navigate the court system on their own, even though life-shattering outcomes may be at stake. The Chief Justice proudly stated that, “while no one is above the law, it is equally true that no one is beneath it.”
Citing a recent survey, Rush noted that “more than 70% of low-income households have been involved in eviction cases, employment disputes, or other civil legal matters in the last year. In 80% of those cases, they lacked legal counsel. Justice only for those customers who can afford it is not justice for all. In fact, it is not justice at all.”
To address this vital need of fundamental fairness, the Coalition for Court Access (CCA) was created. Comprised of twenty legal stakeholders, the CCA provides a focused and comprehensive organizational structure for Indiana’s civil legal-aid programs.
Chief Justice Rush thanked the 7,780 Hoosier attorneys and hundreds of law students who donated over a half-million hours of volunteer legal services last year to help meet the Coalition’s goals of improving the quality of civil legal services for those of limited means.
Last year, the Legislature appropriated $1.5 million for basic legal services. Rush noted that in recent budget presentations she has asked for an increase to $2 million. She provided an impressive statistic, “An Indiana Economic Impact Study showed that for every one dollar invested in legal aid, nearly seven dollars goes back into the economy. Legal aid helps court customers be productive.”
Chief Justice Rush concluded her annual address by recognizing Indiana’s trial court judges.
“Our judges care so deeply for the people they serve—those customers at the center of our judicial system. When a person walks into their county courthouse, they are often facing the toughest day of their life. And you know who they face on the bench—people like Bill Nelson, who has faced his own tough times; Chris Lee, who is pledging to listen; and Mary Ellen Diekhoff, who made sure someone’s son got to treatment.
There is no one I’d rather see standing at the center of our communities than you – our judges – because I know that means our customers are the center of everything we do.”