Switzerland County awaiting word on establishment of new circuit court district here

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If things go as planned in the coming weeks in the Indiana Legislature, Switzerland County will soon become the 91st Judiciary Circuit – and the county will have its first fulltime judge and prosecutor for the first time in more than 100 years.

House Bill 1096 is currently making its way through the Indiana Legislature. If it passes both the House and Senate, Switzerland County will no longer be tied to Jefferson County for circuit court and Ohio County for superior court.

There will be just one Switzerland County Court.

Local attorney Monica Hensley, who is a member of the Switzerland County Bar Association and one of the attorneys who has been pushing the measure, said that this has been a long process that hopefully is about to come to fruition.

“We went to the Commission on Courts in 2006 to try and get it started, but there wasn’t a quorum available to vote on the measure, so it left the commission without a recommendation,” Monica Hensley said. “Even though it didn’t have a recommendation, Senator Jim Lewis introduced a bill that would create our judicial district, but it didn’t get a hearing.”

What the bill calls for is the establishment of the 91st Judicial Circuit, which would be only Switzerland County. The bill would allow Jefferson County to remain its own circuit; would dissolve the Switzerland and Ohio County Superior Court; and would continue the Dearborn and Ohio County Circuit Court, which would then appoint a magistrate to handle matters in Ohio County.

The Commission on Courts is a study committee for the state of Indiana, and when groups or individuals have suggestions or comments to make dealing with the court system, they can present them to the commission, who can agree or disagree.

By November 1st each year the commission makes its recommendations on any changes that they feel need to be made. Those recommendations are then wrapped together into a bill, which is introduced in the Indiana Legislature.

In the fall of 2007, the Switzerland County group returned to the Commission on Courts, and this time the commission agreed that Switzerland County should become its own circuit. That recommendation, along with the others pertaining to Jefferson, Dearborn, and Ohio counties is currently contained in House Bill 1096 – along with all of the other recommendations of the commission.

Representative Phil Hoy of Evansville is the chairman of the Commission on Courts, and he also authored the bill that carries the commission’s recommendations.

The bill first went to the House Judiciary Committee, where it passed unanimously. From there it went to the House Ways and Means Committee, where it again passed unanimously.

The bill now awaits a vote by the entire Indiana House – where local representative Bob Bischoff is helping to support its passage.

“At this point we’re waiting for it to pass the House in general,” Monica Hensley said. “We don’t know when the House is going to vote on it, yet.”

If the bill passes the House, then it will go to the Indiana Senate, where Senator Jim Lewis will again lead the charge to get the bill passed and for it to become law.

“We’re just waiting to see what happens,” Monica Hensley said. “We’ve been told that it’s likely to go through, but we’ll just have to wait.”

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If it’s passed, what will this new law do here?

The county would – on January 1st, 2009 – see the most significant changes in the local county court system in history.

Currently Switzerland County shares a judicial circuit with Jefferson County, with Judge Ted Todd serving as the Circuit Court Judge. Switzerland County also shares a prosecuting attorney with Jefferson County – Chad Lewis.

Switzerland County also shares a Superior Court Judge – John Mitchell – with Ohio County.

If this bill becomes law, then those relationships will no longer exist.

Instead, Ted Todd will be the Circuit Court Judge of the Jefferson County Circuit; and Chad Lewis will be the Jefferson County prosecuting attorney.

There will no longer be a Superior Court Judge in either Switzerland County or Ohio County – with the Dearborn-Ohio County Circuit appointing a magistrate to serve as judge in Ohio County.

Switzerland County would then have its own judge and its own prosecuting attorney – both living here in the county and coming from the county.

The prosecuting attorney would also have a chief deputy, who would also come from Switzerland County.

“We here in Switzerland County for the first time in well over 100 years will have a judge who lives in Switzerland County,” Monica Hensley said. “That judge will be elected by the people of Switzerland County only. We’ll also have a prosecutor who is elected by the people of Switzerland County only. We think it’s time for this to happen here.”

The proposed legislation currently has some unique language in it because of the timeline of the upcoming primary and general elections in Indiana.

Because there is no assurance that the bill will be passed at all, let alone passed in time for the May 6th primary election, the bill calls for each political party in Switzerland County to hold a caucus to nominate a candidate for judge and prosecuting attorney. Those candidates would then stand for election in the November 4th general election.

But, if the bill is passed in the near future, then candidates could be on the ballot for the May primary, making the need for party caucuses a moot point.

“We’ve been told that the legislature wants to fast track this bill,” Monica Hensley said. “They hope to have it passed before the primary.”

Creating a new judicial district that involves Switzerland County only will mean more manpower in the courthouse, as there will be duties that are currently shared in the judicial district that will have to be done here exclusively.

Monica Hensley said that if the new judicial district is approved, the State of Indiana will pay the salaries of the judge, the prosecuting attorney, and the chief deputy prosecuting attorney.

Since Switzerland County currently pays percentages of costs associated with sharing courts, those funds should more than pay for the additional manpower needed in the new court – so the county may actually save money by the state making this move.

Other areas will also be brought into the county. Currently, child support payments for people in Switzerland County are handled through Jefferson County, but if the bill passes, all of those payments will be handled locally in the Switzerland County Courthouse.

The new law would leave the Dearborn-Ohio County circuit as the only shared circuit remaining in the State of Indiana – and both those counties appear to not have a problem with that.

“I think it’s time for this to happen here,” Monica Hensley said. “Judge Mitchell wanted to bring Switzerland and Ohio counties together and form a circuit with the two small counties a few years ago but Ohio County didn’t want to do that. I think they are happy with the way things are now in terms of sharing with Dearborn County, but I think this is a good thing for the people of Switzerland County.”

The petition to create the new district was signed by all six members of the Switzerland County Bar Association: Evelina Coker Brown, Greg Coy, Monica Hensley, David Hickman, Ron Hocker, and Lisa Rosenberger.