It’s Time For A Marion County Courthouse

The Facts: Forty years ago in January 1962, a 28-story office building was completed in Indianapolis. As was apparent by division of space and architectural design, the main purpose of the building was to serve as the central offices for local government administration. A secondary purpose was to house the Marion County courts, tucked away in a relatively small separate west wing of the building with recessed courts.

Much has changed in 40 years. In 1960 the population of Indianapolis was 697,000, the surrounding counties were rural, and crime and the court’s caseload were manageable. When the City-County Building opened, there was space for 16 courts. The volume and behavior of litigants was generally reasonable, and building security was an afterthought.

Today the population of Indianapolis has grown to nearly 860,000, and the metropolitan area is now home to more than 1.6 million residents. The surrounding counties are increasingly integrated with Marion County, commerce has expanded dramatically, and despite IPD now having over 1100 sworn officers and 285 civilian employees, crime has unfortunately increased substantially (averaging approximately 30,000 serious reported crimes annually by IPD alone). Litigants are no longer always predictable or reasonable, and building security concerns are paramount.

These factors have of course meant more civil and criminal work for the local courts. Today there are 32 courts squeezed into an antiquated office building originally designed for 14, an increase of 129%. In addition, more than 60 judicial officers are attempting to manage more than 240,000 new cases filed each year, including nearly 3,000 major felonies annually and almost 40,000 total criminal cases annually.

The Problem: A brief review of these statistics or a 30-minute tour of the behind-the-scenes court space in the City County Building immediately reveals the problem. The nation’s 12th largest city is managing its burgeoning caseload from a 40-year old government office building that is wholly inadequate as a courthouse. Among the daily problems:

  • hearings and even some jury trials are conducted in tiny ad hoc “hearing rooms” where security risks are great and justice is cheapened;
  • prisoners are transported in the midst of jurors, judges, witnesses, parties, victims, and even children;
  • jurors are moved about like cattle, at times even having to sit on the floor waiting their next move;
  • many hearings in contentious civil matters take place without law enforcement officers on the same floor;
  • lawyers have no choice but to counsel their clients in the midst of crowded hallways often times with opposing counsel or parties nearby, or through a holding cell door crowded with other defendants; and
  • overall the entire process lacks an appropriate and necessary sense of decorum, deliberation, and justice.
The Solution: The problems are not new. They only intensify as each week passes and the probabilities of a calamity increase. The solution is obvious. Indianapolis and Marion County need a courthouse designed for the 21st century. The system has gotten all that it can out of the current structure through make-shift and short-term solutions. The 1960 office-tower design of the building ultimately precludes safe and efficient management of a growing local judicial system.

What Is Our Role? Many have worked hard in recent years to make progress on this issue. But our help -- indeed our leadership -- is needed. The IBA’s mission is to promote justice, enhance the legal profession, and serve our members. Working to bring about a new courthouse serves each prong of this mission.

To that end, in collaboration with the Marion County Bar Association I have commissioned the IBA/MCBA Courthouse Task Force [see roster nearby], which has been hard at work now for several months studying the issues and working towards solutions. The Task Force and its distinguished members have one purpose: to be the catalyst that makes adequate, safe, and efficient courthouse space a reality in Indianapolis.

You will hear and read much about our work in the coming months. In the meantime, we need your help. Please become informed about these important issues. Watch for and attend our behind-the-scenes tours of the building demonstrating the unimaginable safety issues that currently exist. Talk with your neighbors, friends, and community thought leaders about the importance of this subject.

The road ahead will not be easy, but with the collective efforts of our 4,000 members, we can and will make a difference.

John Maley can be reached at jmaley@btlaw.com or 231-7464.