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Courts cramped, but who cares?

Push for state judicial building falters again

– Before she was a state senator, Sue Glick remembers working out of a sub-basement under a bus station as a clerk for the Indiana Court of Appeals because there wasn’t enough office space.

That was in the late 1970s.

Fast forward more than three decades and the state judiciary is still leasing space out of at least four downtown Indianapolis office buildings, costing about $2 million in rent annually.

Meanwhile, plans for a state office building to consolidate judicial functions on a lot north of the Statehouse are in limbo.

“The courts keep expanding. It was a problem then, constantly going back and forth for conferences or to the law library. It was hectic,” said Glick, R-LaGrange. “It’s all a fight for space.”

At one point in 2000, the project actually passed the legislature, and plans were even drawn up for a building with an underground parking garage and tunnel to Statehouse.

But Gov. Frank O’Bannon vetoed the bill because of concerns over long-term costs for debt service, operation and maintenance.

Now the state is sitting on a healthy reserve with a coveted AAA credit rating, is cutting taxes and last year the administration burned the mortgages for 10 state facilities – including two office buildings – after paying down the final $125 million in debt.

The just-passed state biennial budget also calls for using $128 million to pay off outstanding bonds on the Indiana State Museum and a forensics and health sciences lab.

The timing couldn’t be better, and that’s why Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, thought the issue should be re-evaluated. He offered a Senate resolution to have legislators study a new judicial building this summer. But legislative leaders didn’t assign the topic, saying there were too many other subjects up for discussion already.

“The longer we wait the cost keeps rising. The Statehouse is over 100 years old and has served us well. But a prudent person would see we really need to do this,” Buck said. “We’re not wanting to build a Taj Mahal.”

Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson said the judicial branch is trying to stay neutral on the topic.

“I’m torn,” he conceded. “The Court of Appeals definitely needs to be in one place in my view. And there are fiscal advantages to stop paying rent and building now when the interest rates are low.”

He also acknowledged increased efficiencies.

Nineof the Court of Appeals judges have offices in the Statehouse along with the five Indiana Supreme Court justices and staff. Six other Court of Appeals judges have offices across the street from where the courtroom is.

Other judicial branch agencies are scattered about, including the disciplinary commission, board of law examiners, tax court, state public defender and division of state court administration.

It’s not uncommon to see clerks dragging carts full of documentation from one building to another – rain, snow or shine.

But Dickson said the Supreme Court justices also like having a traditional presence in the Statehouse representing the third branch.

“It’s healthy to have casual contact with members of the other branches, developing friendships in the elevator and the parking lot,” he said.

Some states with separate judicial buildings have experienced polarization, according to Dickson.

Being in the Statehouse means legislators can attend oral arguments and justices can testify in hearings.

Under any proposal, Dickson said he would push for the Supreme Courtroom to stay in use at the Statehouse. It is the longest-serving Supreme Courtroom in the nation.

Moving the judiciary out would free up space in the Statehouse, and there would likely be a fight for it.

According to an annual Indiana Department of Administration report, state agencies – not including the courts – pay $31 million in annual rent payments statewide, with about half that in Marion County.

The overall number has dropped since 2008.

“The questions that we ask are ‘what are the needs, what’s the intended use and what’s the long-term commitment,’ ” said Steve Harless, deputy commissioner in charge of real estate. “The last part is often very difficult for government and that’s why leasing becomes so attractive. It gives us flexibility if the needs of government change.”

The legislature would likely get first dibs on any free Statehouse space. Dickson said it’s their cramped quarters that have propelled the idea of a judicial building over the years.

The 150 part-time lawmakers have small cubicles, often with no windows and sharing space with four or five others at a time. The senators are at least all arranged around the Senate chamber on sub-floors.

But the House members are spread all around the building, from the first floor to the fourth.

State Budget Director Chris Atkins estimated a $200 million building could cost the state about $15 million annually in bond payments. Usually bonds run between 20 and 30 years.

The price of the building, though, depends on the scope.

Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, chairman of the Courts and Criminal Code Committee, said if there are savings in consolidating the offices into a new building then it’s a worthwhile project.

As for the political temperature of state officials on spending money, he said leaders in place are willing to look at the long-term ramifications of a project rather than just a knee-jerk reaction.

“It might be an investment on the front end that could save money in the long haul,” McMillin said. “I think it’s definitely something we need to take a look at.”

nkelly@jg.net

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