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Second Review of Marion County Small Claims Courts Urges Breaking Ties to Townships

A national courts consultant is urging Indiana to move Marion County's small claims courts out from under township control.

Marion County is the only one in the state which operates multiple township small claims courts, instead of a single county-level court. The National Center on State Courts says that structure can lead to inconsistency from township to township, and raises concerns that trustees could wield undue influence.

It's the second report in three years to urge a change. Court of Appeals Judge John Baker chaired a task force which reviewed the courts' operations after a Wall Street Journal article detailed how debt collectors steered cases to townships perceived as being friendlier to creditors. That report offered the alternative of naming one of the nine small claims judges as presiding judge to standardize operations. But Baker says county control is a better solution. Under existing law, he notes, the small claims courts aren't "courts of record," which means the losing side in a case can ask a superior-court judge to reverse the ruling. That's a luxury Baker notes creditors are far more able than debtors to take advantage of.

The courts have instituted numerous reforms on their own since the task force report was issued, creating standardized forms for all nine townships and clearly identifying court personnel to avoid blurring the lines between the court and creditors. But the NCSC says future judges could undo those changes just as easily.

Marion Circuit Judge Louis Rosenberg, who oversees small-claims court management, asked for the NCSC study as an outside view after the Baker task force issued its report.

Then-Chief Justice Brent Dickson urged legislative action in his State of the Judiciary address this year, but no legislator has proposed shifting the courts to county control. The Senate did approve a bill authored by Indianapolis Republican Scott Schneider to centralize administrative authority in a presiding judge, but the bill never received a hearing in the House.

Baker says he's hopeful the Indiana Supreme Court's embrace of the proposal to bring the courts under county control will give it momentum in next year's legislature. He says he's already heard from Senate leaders about the recommendation.

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