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Caseload growing; newest court will handle civil disputes

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A husband and wife are going through a divorce and battling over custody of their two children.

Each parent wants sole custody, but the parents now live in different school districts. The new school year is quickly approaching, but neither the parents nor children know where the first day will be spent, adding to an already-stressful situation.

Time-sensitive cases involving child custody issues often are given precedence in the courts, cutting waiting time by months in some instances. If someone accused in a criminal matter requests a speedy trial, that case comes to the front of the line.

Other cases then get delayed. In 2012, county courts had more than 15,000 new filings and an additional 10,000 cases pending from the previous year, according to state data. The new filings increased from past years, meaning more pending cases, too.

In order to handle growing caseloads, the county asked the state for a court four times before getting approval from the Indiana General Assembly in 2012. The new Superior Court 4, which will begin handling cases in January, should help lessen the waiting period for a trial.

County judges have decided to assign civil cases to the new court, which will allow other judges to focus more on criminal filings. Criminal filings increased by 17.5 percent from 2011 to 2012 in Johnson County courts, according to state data, but are still less than total civil filings.

In 2012, there were 9,297 civil filings compared with 4,564 criminal filings.

Johnson Superior 3 Judge Lance Hamner handles half of the county’s mortgage foreclosures in Superior 3, but those will move to the new court, along with any other civil cases he normally had.

A divorce case typically takes six months to complete, Johnson Circuit Judge Mark Loyd said.

He hopes that waiting period is decreased by two months with the new court, which will handle 50 percent of the county’s divorce filings.

“I hope we can at least stem the tide,” said Loyd, who has spearheaded the effort to gain a new court since 2004.

Once the new court opens, Hamner will conduct criminal trials five days a week, compared with three under the current system. Superior Court 2 will deal with fewer divorce cases, opening up the ability to move felony cases through more quickly.

The quicker criminal trials can be moved through the system, the less taxpayer money is used to house defendants in the county jail, Loyd said.

The new court will provide other benefits. Superior Court 3, which needs more space, will move to the courthouse annex, and Superior 4 will go into its old space in the courthouse.

On a typical day, people at the court for criminal cases are forced to wait in the hallway or find room on the staircase leading up the courthouse floors, Hamner said.

“There’s not even standing room sometimes,” Hamner said.

“It’s not been infrequent that we would call somebody’s name and list them as a failure to appear, but then you find out they didn’t hear their name called because they were in the hallway because there was no space in the courtroom.”

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