Construction Of New Courtroom At Courthouse Plaza Tabled Again During Commissioners Meeting

(BEDFORD) – The Tuesday morning commissioners became heated after the commissioners and Lawrence County Superior Court I Judge William Sleva could not agree on the construction of a new courtroom in the former WorkOne building at Courthouse Plaza.

Judge Sleva says the new courtroom is needed because court cases are backlogged due to COVID-19 and a special judge may be needed to hear cases in a timely manner due to conflicts now that Chief Deputy Prosecutor Bob Cline has been elected judge.

The prosecutor’s office will also use the new courtroom to hold grand jury hearings and Juvenile Referee Anah Hewetson Gouty to hear children in needed hearings.

Judge Sleva says the estimated cost for the auxiliary courtroom is $200,000 to $300,000.

Sleva says construction costs would be paid for with grants from the Indiana Superior Court, the Criminal Justice Institute, and CARES Act funds. The county has not been awarded any of these grants at this time.

The commissioners are not in support of spending that much money or using the 10,000 square feet of space for a courtroom.

Judge Sleva stressed that during major felony jury trials there are between 90 to 120 jurors called for jury selection and the additional space is needed.

“Our criminal cases are consistently high. Our serious felony cases are consistently high,” said Judge Sleva. “Both myself and Judge Plummer are doing the work of 1.34 judges and in Circuit Court they are doing the work of 1.9 judges. Judge Nikirk and Anah are working long days from 8 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. to hear cases.”

He stressed the courtroom Referee Gouty is using is too small and it is difficult to keep the hearing confidential.

“It’s noisy; we have families lined up in the hallway and on the stairs,” Judge Sleva added. “It’s just horrible.”

Judge Sleva would hear cases on Mondays and Thursdays and child services cases would be held on Wednesdays in the new courtroom.

Judge Sleva stressed it is important to move forward with the new courtroom because of time constrictions the courts have to hear criminal cases.

“If someone is in jail there is only six months to hear their case. If not done they must be released,” said Judge Sleva. “We watch these numbers closely.”

The commissioners were not convinced. They said the courts have been working fine so far and stressed there has to be a more fiscally responsible way to handle this. They added the cost of the courtroom has changed from $50,000 to $70,00 pre-COVID-19 to $100,000 and now $300,000.

The commissioners have seen no documentation on cost or plans for the new courtroom.

Judge Sleva informed the commissioners that Judge Nikirk has applied for a $101,000 Coronavirus Supplement Grant from the Criminal Justice Institute. If received the funds will be used on the construction of the new auxiliary courtroom and funds from the CARES Act would cover the cost at no expense to taxpayers.

“If the money is not used it will go unused,” said Judge Sleva. “It’s free money. We are looking at the future here.”

Commissioner Dustin Gabhart said those funds could be used to help the citizens and businesses of Lawrence County instead of construction a new courtroom.

Commissioners Rodney Fish and Gene McCracken agreed.

“I am not against having a new courtroom,” said McCracken. “But I am not willing to approve spending $300,000 to just put a courtroom into a room.”

Judge Sleva became frustrated with the commissioners.

“The money is free. The money is there and at no cost to the citizens and this is something that is needed,” he added.

“We are asking you to consider something in the middle and you are just not willing to do that,” added Commissioner Gabhart.

Commissioner Fish added, “we believe you have justification for this, but we don’t see it. We have not seen any designs or costs.”

The commissioners voted to table the request until the next commissioners meeting on December 8th. But Judge Sleva said that his request was denied and informed County Attorney David Smith to inform the commissioners of Trial Rule 60.5.

According to Trial Rule 60.5, when a court is denied funds reasonably necessary for the operation of the court, the judge of the court may seek to mandate the appropriation or payment of the funds. Prior to issuing an order to show cause why the appropriation or payment should not be made, the judge is required to meet with the mandated party (the commissioners and council) and demonstrate the need for the appropriation or payment sought.

Once the order to show cause, captioned “Order for Mandate of Funds,” is issued, the judge shall promptly notify the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will appoint as the special judge an attorney who: 1) is not a current or former regular judge, and 2) does not reside nor regularly practice law in the county where the mandate was issued or any contiguous county.

The dispute may be submitted to mediation by agreement of the parties or by order of the Supreme Court or the special judge.

The matter shall be set for trial on the merits of the order to show cause unless the legislative body, chief executive officer or affected officer files a written waiver of a trial and agrees to make the appropriation or payment. Trial of the matter is without a jury and a change of venue is not allowed.

If after a trial the special judge enters a decree or order mandating the appropriation or payment of funds, the matter is automatically reviewed by the Supreme Court unless the party subject to the mandate expressly waives review.

A mandate order made by a court other than the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals may not assess attorney fees at a rate greater than
the reasonable and customary hourly rate for an attorney in the county.

If the mandate results in the appropriation or payment of funds for the operation of the court or court-related functions, the amount must be reported on the court’s Report on Budget and Expenditures, using the INcite system.