A total of six candidates — all Republicans — are seeking two Kosciusko County Superior Court judge seats in the May 6 primary election.
David Cates, Stephen Harris and Chad Miner are seeking the Superior Court 1 seat currently held by the retiring judge, Duane Huffer. Torrey Bauer, Mark Caruso and Tyler Haines are seeking the Superior Court 2 seat now held by James Jarrette, who is not seeking re-election.
Incumbent Judge Joe Sutton is seeking a fourth term for Superior Court 3 and is running unopposed on the Republican ticket.
Cates is a partner in the law firm of Green, Cates and Grossnickle LLP and has lived, practiced law and been involved in Kosciusko County for more than 27 years. He is also the attorney for the Wawasee Community School Corp.
Harris is a lifelong Kosciusko County resident and has practiced law for more than 25 years with his father, Philip J. Harris, a former prosecutor for Kosciusko County.
Miner is a lifelong resident of the county and practices law with Miner & Lemon LLP.
Bauer has lived in the county for 32 years and practiced law from 1991 to 2013 at Lavender and Bauer P.C. In 2013 he opened Bauer Law Office P.C.
Caruso is a former deputy prosecuting attorney for the county and is currently a public defender for Superior Court 3 in Kosciusko County.
Haines is a native of Kosciusko County and has practiced law out of his Leesburg office since 1992. He is also a registered architect.
Sutton has 17 years of judicial experience on a high volume court docket including felony crimes, protection orders, divorce, small claims and other civil litigation.
The Mail-Journal asked each of the six candidates seeking the two judge seats two questions. Following are the questions and the responses from the candidates.
If elected, what do you specifically hope to change or improve concerning the Kosciusko County court system?
Cates: “I have served our county more than 100 days as ‘pro tem’ judge. Combined with the nearly 30 years experience as a practicing attorney in the courts of this and other Indiana counties, I am confident in stating the Kosciusko County court system is efficient and effective. However, there is always room for improvement.
“If elected, I intend to further advance court efficiencies by improving scheduling of matters to make the system more user-friendly for litigants and their attorneys. I believe our courts can make better use of technological advances to make delivery of legal services and the judiciary more available to the public. Utilization of those technological advances can make courts more transparent to the public and may also be used to ensure judges have access to the best information available during courtroom proceedings.
“Superior Court I is our county’s juvenile court and handles a significant domestic relations case load. Oftentimes, the issues in these cases are social, yet we try to resolve them utilizing the legal system. Helping litigants in those cases resolve their issues themselves will free court time and assist those litigants in avoiding future disputes. This would, of necessity, include expansion of the use of services offered by third parties such as the Otis R. Bowen Center for Human Services and Lifeline Youth and Family Services. Once elected, I pledge to continually work to improve court operations to ensure fair application of law.”
Harris: “If elected, I would like to work toward continually improving the operations of the court. I will seek to run the office in a financially efficient manner and explore all technology and information systems to insure the court is able to run effectively with the best possible information. Superior Court 1 is the juvenile court. I would like to explore all programs to educate juvenile offenders as well as programs educating their parents and guardians, to prevent future juvenile offenses and learn life skills to be productive citizens.
“I will work with current judges, sheriff’s department, probation officers, counseling agencies, attorneys and court staff to timely and fairly dispose of matters before the court and promote a professional and respectful atmosphere for litigants and attorneys.”
Miner: “I am the second generation in my family to be a part of the Kosciusko County legal community (father Mike Miner was once the county prosecuting attorney). Given the excellence of our court system, I believe there are several key areas in which any court system, no matter how exceptional, may look to continually improve. These include civility and the extension of a welcoming and respectful atmosphere to the parties. My years on the Silver Lake Town Council have given me insight regarding the problems and concerns facing the citizens of Kosciusko County and have given me a deeper understanding of the benefits of being heard with courtesy and an open mind.
“Also, I believe that by maintaining and continually seeking to improve the civility and positive, problem-solving atmosphere of Kosciusko Superior Court I, all of Kosciusko County will benefit from our high judicial standards.”
Bauer: “Indiana courts are required to operate under the ‘Indiana Weighted Caseload Measurement System.’ This statewide system is designed to ensure equitable distribution of workload in counties with multiple courts and to promote more timely resolution of cases.
“Under the system courts are assigned a weighted caseload measurement number reflecting the type of cases being filed in the court. If courts within the same county are separated by a WCM of 0.4 or greater the county is required to resolve the imbalance by transferring cases one court to the other.
“The most recent information available indicates Superior Court 2 operated at 1.15. The remaining three county courts operated at 1.77, 1.48 and 1.55. This imbalance requires the transfer of additional cases to Superior Court 2. It is a near certainty that to achieve the required balance Superior Court 2 must start receiving and resolving civil law matters (family law, adoption, guardianship, estates, civil litigation, etc.)
“It would be my hope, if elected, I can correct the courts imbalance and in so doing provide county residents with the ability to resolve all legal matters more efficiently and effectively than presently is the case.”
Caruso: “Having been both a deputy prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney, I realize that most people can find court an intimidating place. My goal would be to make the court more ‘user friendly’ to the people who are involved, either as victims or litigants. I believe an important function of a court is to allow a person time to seek counsel, meet with a victim’s assistant or educate themselves to their rights, responsibilities and the possible impact of a case on their lives, while still permitting timely access to the court when a resolution has been reached.
“By working with the county bar association, the county clerk’s staff and, in criminal matters, the prosecutor’s office, local law enforcement and our probation officers, the court could resolve many matters in a timely fashion.”
Haines: “The current judge in Superior Court 2 has done an outstanding job over the course of his multiple terms. It is Superior Court 2 that generates the most revenue and that revenue flow must be continued uninterrupted. When elected, I will continue to do likewise. While Superior Court 2 moves a lot of misdemeanor and infraction case filings, there still needs to be a better allotment of cases between Kosciusko County’s four courts. Superior Court 2 will need to take on more time consuming civil cases, felonies and family law.
“One major item of change in the near future, for all the courts, will be electronic court filing. This will be a statewide implementation of a uniform system to conduct all court matters electronically. The federal courts already implemented this system about 10 years ago, and I have been using it daily. It sounds daunting at first, but once implemented, it saves on travel, postage and creates ease of access to documents and records. I would like to be a part of the transition to this system and believe I will be of great help in implementing electronic court filing on the local level.”
Please state two areas of concern you have about the county court system and what you plan to do to address those.
Cates: “Extending the use of technology to improve transparency in public areas of the judiciary is beneficial to the public perception of fairness of the judiciary. Utilization of technological improvements can also speed application of justice to parties involved in disputes.
“An oft-quoted phrase is ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ Easier public access to the judiciary in a timely fashion is every judge’s goal. Better calendar utilization and modification of dates and times for scheduling of matters can speed litigants’ access to justice.”
Harris: “The first area of concern will be the implementation of the new criminal sentencing reform. In 2013 the General Assembly enacted legislation to reform criminal sentencing effective July 1, 2014. The law, among other things, expands upon the states four levels of felonies and it creates six levels of felonies. The law was extended to ease jail crowding and give judges more discretion for low level offenses.
“There are many questions and uncertainties with respect to these new sentencing guidelines. One main concern, however, is the effect on the local jail population and funding for any increases. If elected I will work closely with the sheriff’s department and the prosecutor’s office to keep open communication to effectively implement this new law.
“A second area of concern is to continually look for ways to educate the community as to the functions the court serves. I would make myself available for speaking engagements for school and education groups and service organizations.”
Miner: “While there are a number of important areas within our court system, I believe that two areas of concern stand out as the most significant. First is the need to ensure all parties are treated with respect and dignity. Second is the necessity of protecting children and taking steps to ensure that they grow into productive, responsible and well-adjusted citizens.
“Treating parties with respect and dignity obviously goes to the very heart of our judicial system and is a critical component in guaranteeing that litigants receive their day in court. Ensuring respect and dignity to all parties would be among my top priorities.
“The necessity of protecting and assisting children is a matter that is more specific to the cases heard in Superior Court One, which hears cases involving juvenile offenders and children in need of services (CHINS). As a result of the cases heard, the judge of Superior Court One has the unique opportunity to do an incredible amount of good within our community by protecting children who are involved in difficult family situations and also by getting wayward young people back on the right path, and addressing this area of concern would be among my highest priorities.”
Bauer: “The first area of concern is the length of time it presently can take to resolve matters before the court. A huge step in improving this would be correcting the imbalance within the county courts through the opening of Superior 2 up to civil filings.
“The second area of concern is the very high volume of drug and alcohol related cases passing through the court and the difficulty the court system has in effectively addressing them from the standpoint of reducing repeat offenders. Since I started practicing 23 years ago great strides have been made through the implementation of Kosciusko County Drug Alcohol Program and most recently the start of the drug court. Community options now exist, as well, such as Serenity House and Rose Home.
“It would be my desire if elected to explore additional options to work hand in hand with the existing resources and to improve and support the programs already in place.”
Caruso: “I find our courts to be among the better run in the state. Superior Court II is a high volume court, dealing with thousands of cases every year. However, as a deputy prosecutor in Allen County I worked in a system with much higher numbers and yet access to the court was more readily available. Many litigants and victims must wait several months between court dates. I would like to allow those parties, their attorneys or the state the opportunity to schedule their cases back into the court when they have reached a resolution.
“The other area which I believe is a major concern in our society is substance abuse. Our county has taken great strides in establishing a drug court and probation’s alcohol and substance abuse program, and there are several inpatient and outpatient counseling options in our area which can help those who become involved in the criminal justice system to change destructive behaviors and improve their decision making skills. I would work as much as possible with the programs at hand to best determine a course of education, counseling or incarceration, and based upon the recommendations of those much better versed in the areas of substance abuse and addiction, determine the best outcome for all affected.”
Haines: “The first area of concern I have with the current court system, as a whole, has to do with sentencing. When I first moved back to Kosciusko County, I noticed a difference in first time offender sentencing. I found our youth were likely to be sent to DOC much sooner. I have always felt we should try to keep our younger offenders, and non-violent offenders, closer to home upon sentencing. We have an excellent jail and work release program in Kosciusko County. As Superior Court 2 judge, I would take a firm approach toward any crime of violence, but I would try to find innovative sentencing for the non-violent offender. I will seek ways such offenders can pay back the community through financial restitution and volunteerism.
“Another area of concern I have for the future of the courts is implementation of problem-solving courts. Establishment of problem-solving courts has been a trend in many jurisdictions over the past several decades. Kosciusko County recently took the step of creating a problem-solving court, being the drug court, which will be a subdivision of the circuit court.
“Problem-solving courts can be created for many different areas including drug courts, mental health courts, domestic courts and community courts. I believe the concept of problem-solving courts is a good idea. We all hate to see the same names in the paper, week after week, under the arrests. In the future we may be able to have a community oriented court to stop first time offenders from continuing on with a life of crime. These are some of the concerns I will like to address as judge of Superior Court 2.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Judge Joe Sutton is unopposed so was not asked to submit answers to the questions.)