Friday, July 23, 2010

07232010 - News Article - MARK KIESLING: Magistrate's progress bears watching - Magistrate James Johnson judicial investigation

MARK KIESLING: Magistrate's progress bears watching
NWI Times

July 23, 2010 1:55 pm

Maybe a backlog of 97 cases in one court doesn't sound like all that many, but it is if one of those cases is yours.

Judges in Porter County have acted to get some help for Magistrate James Johnson, and Circuit Court Judge Mary Harper might make a decision as soon as today about hiring a part-time probate commissioner for Johnson.

They've known about this problem for some time, but decided to act after some pesky reporters began asking questions recently about the work piling up on Johnson's desk.

Johnson's poor health was cited by Harper as a reason for the backlog, but the county's judges say he is now well enough to resume his duties and just needs some help cleaning house.

If your case is one of those 97 that is hanging fire, the news will be welcome. Johnson already has been able to pare that 97 to a number somewhere in the 80s.

What is also welcome, I guess, is that the money used to hire the temporary probate commissioner (who will not receive benefits) will not require any cash from taxpayers.

Rather, it will come out of a family fund already set up within the budget for the circuit court. I just hope that the cost is low enough that nothing that needs doing in other areas gets short-changed.

Porter County has at least acted well in advance of any serious problems, unlike a similar situation in Lake County several years ago when Criminal Court Judge Joan Kouros amassed an enormous backlog due to health problems, hundreds of cases of a criminal nature.

Johnson handles divorce, estate and guardianship cases, which also need to be settled in a timely, efficient manner.

The judges kept delaying taking the Kouros matter in hand, and it ended up with people being kept in jail who had been ordered released because of the paperwork backlog and sheer volume of work in that court.
The Indiana Supreme Court in 2004 ordered that Kouros be removed from the bench and that she also repay the state the more than $11,000 the four-year investigation cost.

Whether the Supreme Court or its Commission on Judicial Qualifications will investigate Johnson remains to be seen. A judge who knows he is amassing a backlog and waits for someone else to force help on him might need a little guidance from Indianapolis.

Nothing says Johnson should be removed from the bench for failure to perform his duty, but when he gets back to work maybe someone should look over his shoulder for a while.

The opinions are solely those of the writer.

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