By Michelle Goodman, Staff Attorney | Indiana Office of Court Services
The Judicial Conference of Indiana’s Strategic Planning Committee continues to set a vision for the future of Indiana’s justice system. Since the committee’s inception in 2008, it has continued its efforts through education, implementation, and additional planning to carry out its overall mission, “[t]o improve our system of justice under the rule of law while protecting individual rights and liberties in a fair, impartial, equally accessible, prompt, professional, and efficient manner.”
On September 15, 2020, the Judicial Conference approved the current strategic plan put forth by the 12-member Committee. This 20-page plan reaffirms prior areas of focus as well as incorporating new goals for enhancing and improving our justice system. The plan also took stock in prior achievements made by the judiciary and stakeholders over the last decade, such as:
- increasing continuing education requirements for judges by 50%
- amending Trial Rule 77 to provide courts and clerks with better direction on court records
- legislation to require city and town court judges be attorneys going forward
- implementation of the merit selection process for Marion County Superior Courts
- continuing to provide training opportunities for court staff and clerks
During the three years the Committee worked to develop this new plan, the members continued to explore topics and raise issues of upmost importance to improving our justice system. The Committee updated the Board of Directors on their progress, updated the judiciary during district meetings, and spoke with leaders of the Clerks’ Association and the Sheriffs’ Association to keep the lines of communication open regarding the concepts in the plan. These meaningful discussions and feedback were invaluable to inform areas of agreement and concern and opportunities to refine proposals. As the Committee prepared to present its final work product to the Judicial Conference Board of Directors, the COVID-19 pandemic proved the importance of addressing areas such as technology, security, and other related court operations.
The full strategic plan details the current status of each area while outlining why improvements must be sought to reach these long-term goals. The key areas, as outlined in the Executive Summary, include:
Security: Safety and security in the courthouse must be dramatically improved. Litigants, witnesses, jurors, judicial officers, lawyers, and the public deserve to feel safe in the places where they work and seek justice. Every Indiana county should have a Court Security Plan that conforms to the Indiana Courthouse Security Minimum Security Standards.
Technology: The Odyssey Case Management System is the statewide system for maintaining cases. Court information is available online through the mycase.in.gov application. E-filing allows attorneys and unrepresented litigants to file documents without a trip to the courthouse. Courts are able to conduct hearings remotely, saving time and promoting safety. All courts should be consistently using the same technology programs and systems to allow for efficient access to needed information.
Clerk Functions: Clerks are elected officials partnering with the courts, and we will pursue improvements to clerk and court operations, including setting clear lines of responsibility. The courts are solely responsible for their own records and should perform all functions related to those records.
Court Structure: Indiana has a complex judicial system and explaining the jurisdiction of each court is difficult, complicated, and confusing. We must simplify the current structure.
Judicial Selection: There are multiple ways a person becomes a judge in Indiana; adopting more uniform and less partisan methods will inspire greater confidence in the judicial system. Indiana should standardize its judicial selection processes for trial court judges across the state. Counties should be permitted to opt into nonpartisan methods for selecting trial court judges.
Centralized Funding: The current approach to fund the court system is inefficient and unfair. The State pays salaries and benefits for judges, magistrates, and prosecutors; however, their staff, public defenders, expert witness fees in pauper defense cases, probation officers, interpreters, psychological evaluations, and other related expenses are paid from local funds with local budgeting determined by county councils. We believe centralized funding will eliminate inequities and increase efficiency.
Access to Justice: To achieve the robust protection of Constitutional rights, Indiana must undertake a serious look at race and equity, resources, legal aid, imposition of fines, and jury selection. Our Constitutional promises of accessible, prompt, and fair justice, and a jury of our peers must extend to all regardless of their financial resources and situation. True access to justice requires the participation of all.
Setting forth this vision for the judiciary is just the beginning. The Committee hopes “this vision for the future will encourage judges and other stakeholders across Indiana to discuss how we can improve the justice system.” Achieving this long-term vision will involve ongoing collaborative discussions between the judiciary and key stakeholders to identify actionable steps designed to move our system of justice forward and meet our mission of improving the judicial system.