Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Marion County Criminal Court Judges Should Issue Mandate to Block Move of Courts To Old Airport Property

In recent weeks, there have been a number of reports about Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard's desire to construct a Justice Center that would include all the Marion County criminal courts, the prosecutor's office, the public defenders officer, sheriff and the jails.

In a report recently published, fourteen locations with one at the on the old airport property near the county line being the preferred location. Instead of borrowing the money to build the facility, the plan is to involve a private company to build and own the facility and then the city would rent out space from the private company.  Indianapolis has already started entertaining proposals from various companies to build the Justice Center.  Although the city is mum on which company has submitted proposals, Corrections Corporation of America, which is a big contributor Mayor Ballard and, even more importantly, is represented by the law firm Barnes & Thornburg which has enormous influence within the Ballard administration, is heavily favored to win what will be an extremely lucrative contract.  Located near the airport, CCA would be positioned to also land federal corrections contracts.

While the idea of building a Justice Center initially enjoyed support including an editorial by the Indianapolis Business Journal and a supporting letter from former Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm (which is behind a paywall), the idea quickly fell out of favor when the city favored the airport site.   At present, it would appear that the idea of moving the criminal courts and other offices to the far edge of the county is opposed by virtually everyone who works in the Marion County legal system. The nature of a criminal cases is that you often have a series of very brief hearings, maybe as brief as five minutes, that have to be attended by both the attorney and the defendant.  Attorneys, most of whom who are located downtown will have to take a 50 minute round trip to the Justice Center for those five minute hearings.  Many downtown attorneys will simply opt not take criminal cases or will have to raise their rates significantly.    As a result, many defendants who don't qualify for a public defender might struggle to find a private attorney to take their case.
The  location of the court will be a major inconvenience to everyone involved.  Defendants will have to travel considerably farther to go to court.  Some may not be able to make the trip. Then you have the fact that witnesses and jury pool members are also greatly inconvenienced by the airport location.  You also have an entire economy built around the legal system downtown.  Things like restaurants and the City Market will be hit hard by the loss of lunch business.

In 2013, Marion County Center Township Small Claims Court judge Michelle Smith Scott issued a mandate that blocked the township's attempt to make her move from the City-County Building to the Julia Carson Center on Fall Creek Parkway.  She cited the loss of a centrally-located facility in the township as creating a burden on people who would visit the court. The Indiana Supreme Court agreed with some language that is relevant to the attempt to move criminal courts from a central location to the far edge of the county:
As we previously observed, an overriding issue presented in this case is the fundamental question of access to justice. Indeed, providing such access is a constitutionally-mandated function of Indiana courts. See Ind. Const. art. 1, § 12 ("All courts shall be open; and every person, for injury done to him in his person, property, or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law. Justice shall be administered freely, and without purchase; completely, and without denial; speedily, and without delay."). It is undisputed that the Small Claims Court is presently centrally located in Center Township and is in close proximity to all (and within easy walking distance to most) public bus routes in the township and Marion County. Further, there is no dispute that the court is located in the same building as multiple other Marion County Courts and public services frequently used by litigants.
Unlike in the Center Township Small Claims Court where both the township and the judge had a say in the location of the court, it is not clear how the Mayor of Indianapolis has the authority to the criminal courts judges, the prosecutor, and the Sheriff, all separately elected officials, to relocate to the county line.  Mayor Ballard is not their boss. 

The Center Township Judge successfully made the case that people having to go to the Carson Center instead of the more centrally located City-County Building would be a hardship.  An even stronger case can be made about moving the criminal courts out to the Hendricks County line.  The criminal court judges should follow Judge Michelle Smith Scott's lead and issue a mandate to block any move of their courts to the old airport property.

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