Sunday, July 11, 2010

07112010 - News Article - Magistrates failing to keep up with case loads - Magistrate James Johnson judicial investigation

Magistrates failing to keep up with case loads
July 11, 2010 12:05 am
By Bob Kasarda

VALPARAISO - Both of Porter County's adult court magistrate judges ended most of the last five quarters with more cases pending than when the quarters began, according to statistics compiled by the county court administrator's office.

The case loads peaked the first quarter of this year, which are the most recent figures available.

Magistrate James Johnson ended the first quarter of this year with 332 divorce cases, 1,574 estate cases and 1,364 guardianship cases pending.

Magistrate Katherine Forbes ended the same quarter with 293 divorce cases, 1,347 estate cases and 1,457 guardianship cases pending.

Johnson disposed of slightly more estate cases than Forbes over the last five quarters, while the reverse was true for divorce cases. Both the magistrates disposed of the same number of guardianship cases.

It was revealed last week that the Indiana Judicial Qualifications Commission is investigating a complaint that Johnson is taking too long in disposing cases.

While litigants and defendants are free to file such complaints, there are no definitive guidelines on how quickly civil or criminal case are to move through the legal system, said Indiana Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathryn Dolan.

There are time constraints in place for specific aspects of each case, she said, but there is room for flexibility depending on the unique needs of each situation.

"So there is no timeline," Dolan said.

Neither Johnson nor Forbes returned telephone calls for comment.

The Indiana Supreme Court ordered Lake County Judge Joan Kouros permanently removed from the bench effective February 2005 as a result of complaints she was too slow in completing routine paperwork, leading to stalled jail inmate transfers and then overcrowding in the county lockup.

A commission reviewing her court found a backlog of hundreds of cases awaiting her signature on decisions made months earlier.

Kouros was suspended for six months in 2003, reinstated in January 2004 after promising to improve and suspended again in July 2004 on grounds she'd failed to keep the promise.

Dolan would not comment on or even confirm the investigation into Johnson's work load. But she said if the commission believes misconduct has occurred, it can file charges against a judge.

The state Supreme Court responds by appointing a panel of five trial court judges to review the charges and make a recommendation back to the high court. The court is not bound by the recommendation, and can respond by doing nothing or going so far as removing a judge from the bench.

The identity of the person filing a complaint is provided to the targeted judge or magistrate, Dolan said.

Porter Superior Court Judge David Chidester recently notified members of the county bar association of the allegations involving Johnson and invited the attorneys to apply for the magistrate position.

Superior Court Judge Roger Bradford, who supervises Johnson, said there is no need for anyone to send in a resume because there are no plans to replace Johnson.

The six Porter County judges are expected to discuss the issue during their next meeting July 20.

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