Courthouse

Knox County has secured a fourth judicial official as the state budget bill included a much-needed magistrate.

After years of hoping and planning, Knox County is getting its magistrate.

Gov. Eric Holcomb last week signed House Bill 1064 — the budget bill — and in it is an allowance for Knox County to add another judicial official, a magistrate, to its ranks.

The county’s three judges, led by Superior Court I Judge Gara Lee, have been working with state legislators for nearly a year on the measure and are now “thrilled,” Lee said, to see it become a reality.

“It’s been a roller coaster, but we got there,” Lee said. “It’s turned out well.

“So now we are in the process of trying to arrange for that — figure out a space, figure out the manpower and how we’re going to change the way we’ve been doing things for so long.”

The Knox County magistrate was originally included in Senate Bill 380 last year, which moved on to the House of Representatives but got stuck in its Ways and Means Committee. Then was killed altogether, Lee said.

At the same time, HB 1064 was taking shape and included magistrates and judicial officials for a handful of Hoosier counties — but not Knox.

When the Senate bill died in the House, Lee said they moved quickly to see Knox County added to the House budget bill, and they were successful.

A magistrate is not an elected official but would, instead, be an attorney hired by the judges themselves to take over a portion of their caseload. Magistrates can do most anything a judge can do, and while much is yet to be decided, the judges believe the magistrate will likely start in the area of family law.

“We’ve started to sit down to talk about what types of cases the magistrate will handle,” Lee explained. “We’re leaning towards that person doing 4-D (child support) cases, other family law cases, probably doing some small claims over in Superior II.

“That is where we will start,” she said, “and then we’ll see how it’s working, how we might tweak things later.”

Included in locals’ plea for a magistrate were weighted caseload numbers from 2019.

Each type of case is given a weight — the more severe the case, the more time it takes, the higher the rating — and all those are then added up to reflect that county’s total caseload.

Knox County had a caseload rating of 4.1, Lee said, in 2019, and with only three elected judges, that means they were doing the work of more than four.

Knox County, too, in looking at weighted caseloads across the 92 counties in Indiana, rated No. 5 in terms of overall need for more judicial officials.

Lee said the county’s weighted caseload — save a brief reprieve in 2020 due to the pandemic — have been high since she took the bench in 2015, hence her desire to secure a magistrate.

The judges are looking to get someone started as soon as possible; the bill takes effect on July 1, meaning the state funds will be available then.

Lee said the position has already been posted through the Indiana Bar Association — state law mandates that any applicants remain confidential — and will remain posted through May 21.

The judges hope to host interviews the week after that and could possibly make their selection by May 28.

But they will give that person plenty of time to wrap up their own practice before taking over as magistrate.

“In theory, we could have someone start on (July 1), but in reality it won’t be that quick,” she said. “We’ll want to allow that person to take some time.

“Hopefully, we can have somebody started in August, maybe the first of September.”

As for where the magistrate will go, Lee isn’t yet sure. For now, the magistrate will likely float between courtrooms, taking over where needed and allowing the judges to get caught up on other work elsewhere.

It’s also possible, she said, that a third-floor court library could be converted into a small hearing room.

“Sometime soon, we’ll meet with one of the commissioners and the (courthouse) maintenance director to start talking about that space,” she said.

And while the state will cover most of the cost of the magistrate, there will be other costs that must be picked up by the county, such as a court reporter and any other necessary staff, operational costs, etc.

“But, ultimately, this is going to be a great thing for the county,” Lee said, “as far as being able to move more cases through and having more judicial officers available to hear more cases.

“Hopefully, we can get people into court sooner now.”

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