Indiana's court system is decentralized and ensures at least three courts in each county. Ongoing reforms to the system are slowly streamlining legal processes, particularly in combining circuit and superior courts.
Indiana Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
Cities and towns in Indiana may have municipal courts with jurisdiction over violations of local ordinances, misdemeanors, and traffic matters. In 2016 there were 22 town courts in the state and 43 city courts.
There is only one dedicated small claims court in the state, located in Marion County. Otherwise small claims are handled in circuit courts.
The tax court may act as an appellate court, but can conduct trials as well, when necessary. This court hears appeals of decisions made by state agencies that determine how much taxpayers pay in taxes.
St. Joseph County is unusual as it has courts dedicated to juvenile issues and probate (wills, estates, guardianship of elderly).
Indiana Circuit Courts
There is a circuit court in each of Indiana's 92 counties except for two very small counties which share a court. Circuit courts have jurisdiction over all civil and criminal issues. There are 115 judges at this level.
In recent decades, counties have petitioned to remove distinctions between circuit and superior courts, essentially combining the two into circuit courts with "'divisions." This has occurred in Delaware, Monroe, Madison, Henry, and Clark counties.
Circuit courts have appellate jurisdiction over disputed verdicts handed down in municipal courts.
Indiana Superior Courts
Indiana's superior courts handle all trials including small claims issues. Nearly every county in Indiana has a superior court as well as a circuit court. In some areas the two have been combined into one circuit court. There are 201 judges at this level.
Judges sit for six-year terms and are chosen in a variety of ways, depending on the county. While most are elected by voters, two counties employ nonpartisan elections. In one county vacancies on the bench can be filled by the governor using a nominating commission. Two other counties select judges through a merit process.
There were about 1.6 million cases pending in trial and lower courts at the start of 2014.
Indiana Appellate Court
This court hears appeals of verdicts reached in trial courts as well as appeals of decisions made by state agencies such as the Workers Compensation Commission and others. The state Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over some types of appeals, including those of sentences lasting 50 years or more, death penalty cases, those concerning the constitutionality of laws, and more.
The court was expanded from nine to 15 judges so that a panel of three judges could hear cases in each of five districts in the state. Judges are appointed to vacant slots by the governor, using nominees selected by a special commission. New judges have a two-year probationary term then must stand for re-election by voters to 10-year terms, depending on their district.
In 2015 the appeals court received about 3,200 cases and disposed about 2,900 with 1,915 written decisions. Of those, 133 criminal cases and 215 civil cases were reversed and 20 cases were remanded. The court received almost 6,400 motions and petitions during the term.
Indiana Supreme Court
Indiana has five Supreme Court justices who are nominated by a special commission then named by the governor. New justices are named to the bench for two-year probationary terms then must run in general election for retention. If successful, they serve 10-year terms.
Cases heard by the Supreme Court do not include witness testimony; a panel of judges takes oral arguments from both sides and reviews the record of a case before making a decision. The primary question in cases appealed to the Supreme Court is whether the lower court reached its decision through proper application of the law.
Among the Supreme Court's areas of jurisdiction are administration and oversight of the state bar, automatic appeals of death penalty sentences, questions of constitutionality of state laws, and cases decided by the appellate courts.
The Supreme Court receives about 1,000 case filings per year and disposes of over 900. Even so, it was noted as a low-performing court in a recent survey of all state supreme courts.
Indiana Notable Court Cases
A man serving a 70-year sentence for dealing cocaine got his sentence modified when he represented himself before the state appeals court panel. The 61-year-old man had spent more than 15 years in jail without any behavioral infractions, using the time to earn an associate's degree and a paralegal certificate. A lower court judge modified the sentence to send the habitual offender to a community correctional facility for the duration of his sentence but he appealed, saying the judge abused his discretion in modifying but not reducing the sentence. The appeals court did not agree completely, remanding the case to the trial court for rehearing.