State Rep. Dan Leonard (R-District 50) introduced a bill this week that would add a magistrate to Huntington County’s judicial branch.

Leonard says his bill would lower judicial costs for the county while also reducing the current caseload, which officials say has increased in recent years. Between 2016 and 2019, the Huntington County Courthouse’s felonies cases increased by 56%, misdemeanor cases increased by 26%, paternity cases increased by 138%, and juvenile cases increased 52%, according to Huntington County Circuit Court Judge Davin Smith.

“I would imagine that our 2020 numbers will be down slightly due to COVID... but in general I don’t think our caseload numbers are going to go down,” Judge Smith said. “They haven’t for the last four years. They’ve increased every year, so that’s the reason we are making this request at the state level to get a full time magistrate going forward.”

The request for a full-time magistrate has been approved by a summer committee of the Indiana General Assembly, Leonard says, but the bill will need Gov. Eric Holcomb’s signature as well as approval by both the Indiana House and Senate in order to go into effect.

If the bill receives approval, the new judicial officer would be paid for by the state. Huntington County currently pays for and employs a part-time judicial officer that works two days a week, called a referee, to ease the workload of the county’s judges.

While Huntington County’s two judges are elected by voters, the magistrate would be picked by Judge Smith and Superior Court Judge Jennifer Newton, Leonard says.

Unlike a referee, Leonard says a magistrate won’t be able to engage in private practice outside of their duty as a judicial officer.

“Our hope is that this will allow us to spend more time on each case, to get the community better access to the courts,” Judge Smith said.

Although Leonard says the bill, House Bill 1043, still has a long way to go in the approval process, it passed its first hurdle in the statehouse Tuesday when it received a unanimous vote by the House Committee for Courts and Criminal Code.

The bill now advances to the full Indiana House of Representatives for a vote, and if it is passed in that chamber, it moves to the Senate for approval.

“Hopefully, (House Bill 1043), will alleviate some of the backlog in cases in both the superior court and circuit court,” Leonard said.