On Jan. 30 Judge John Kellerman, wearing a suit and tie instead of a long robe, presided over a civil court session in Batesville with court clerk Debbie Krause sitting next to him.
At a nearby table in the Memorial Building council chambers sat Southeastern Indiana YMCA chief financial director Ted Harmeyer and child care assistant director Dawn Denny. Two fathers owed $321 and $478 to the Y’s Learning Center. Neither had appeared at previous hearings after receiving court notices. They didn’t show up today either.
The judge asked, “What would you like to see happen?”
Denny suggested setting up payment plans for the men. According to Harmeyer, “There has been zero contact the last couple of months. We’re willing to work with them.”
They decided to one man’s garnish wages. Of the other, Kellerman said, “As you know, the order to appear says in bold and underlined letters, ‘Failure to appear will result in a body attachment ... law enforcement can arrest the person” with bail set in the unpaid amount.” The judge was hesitant to issue a warrant, however, because a police officer left the notice in the door and he was unsure the man received it. “I’m going to give ... (him) one more chance to appear. Police will get the notice into his hands.”
A female defendant was put on the spot when she didn’t show up for her 1:30 p.m. hearing. With landlord Dennis Niese listening in, the judge put Tiffany Marksberry on speakerphone. Niese was seeking enforcement of a Jan. 15 court order stating Marksberry was supposed to vacant his Milan apartment by Jan. 20 at 5 p.m., but she was still living there.
“I’m actually leaving today,” she reported. She said the paper was served the night before, but she couldn’t notify the court of her absence because “I had to leave and work third shift.”
Marksberry said she was concerned because $1,756 was the judgment, higher than the $650-per-month rent for December and January. “Can’t he take the deposit off one of those month’s rent?” Kellerman pointed out, “Those kinds of issues are why it’s important to come to court.” Marksberry reported after moving to the apartment in August, she discovered raw sewage in the backyard. “My basement was flooded. Everything in there was ruined.” She told Niese, but the problem was not remedied.
The judge informed the woman if she wanted to file a motion for him to reconsider the judgment amount, she must do it in writing. The woman gave Kellerman her new Sunman address and asked how to file a motion. The judge said he couldn’t advise her on legal matters. “Who do I talk to?” she pressed. He referred her to an attorney or Legal Volunteers of Southeast Indiana, which is based at the Frank Cardis law office, Lawrenceburg, 812-537-0100.
There are several ways cases wind up in this court, Kellerman said during an interview Jan. 28. Civil dispute complaints between citizens or businesses can be filed in the court of their choice. The Batesville court has physical jurisdiction throughout Ripley and Franklin counties. He reflected, “There are a large number of landlord-tenant cases that come out of Sunman” into his court. “It’s much easier to drive to Batesville than Versailles,” where the other city court is located.
On the other hand, Batesville ordinance violations must be filed in the city court, which has a $3,000 judgment limit. “We have very few of those.” When neighbors, police or city officials talk to residents about noise, animals running loose or yard trash, “the citizens in Batesville and the whole county are really good about modifying their behavior when they’re violating a city ordinance.”
The Batesville resident discussed civil collection bench trials, giving an example. “The merchant files the complaint to start the case, which puts the defendant on notice. Merchant A believes you owe him X number of dollars. If you disagree with that amount, there’s a hearing scheduled ... The defendant denies something about the accuracy of the bill ... I hear evidence from both sides and decide who wins. It seems like the vast majority of cases … are resolved before the judge has to decide whether it’s a valid bill. Most generally, people get the notice ... Those with the means will simply pay the bill.”
Some don’t have the money. According to Kellerman, “There are folks, I find, who wind up in a bad spot .... What I seem to run into, over and over, are folks who bit off a little more than they can chew (financially). ‘I could pay my rent and my car insurance and put food on the table right until I broke my leg.’ Those folks many times pay the oldest bill first.”
Kellerman has to decide what is a doable payment plan. “What I find over and over again, merchants will accept partial payments or will never come to court if they’re getting some kind of regular payment. It’s only when they hear nothing that the case winds up in court.”
What are the most common infractions? Speeding, he said immediately, because I-74 goes past Batesville. Almost all infractions are traffic violations, such as running a stop sign or following too closely. “Possession of drug paraphernalia ... can be more serious. Having a pipe that’s been used to smoke marijuana ... many times those infractions come along with a moving violation.”
Sometimes money isn’t part of the judgment. Years ago, Kellerman had to rule on a case involving leaves. It “came down to asking the court to order the other (neighbor) to keep leaves off of their lawn. That sounds a little bit frivolous,” but he listened.
“Many times people just want to tell their side of the story … I try to be very patient with that. I have discovered that everybody is entitled to their day in court .... If you can explain to them why the decision is the way that it is, they go away satisfied, maybe not content with why the law says what it says, but more willing to abide by the order.”
Of the 13-year full-time clerk, he observed, “I couldn’t operate the court as effectively as I do without her. I’m not there all the time. I’m there as needed” typically on Wednesday afternoons and other times when contested hearings are scheduled or papers need to be signed.
“She’s there all the time and she does a very good job with customer relations. When the policemen come to file tickets,” Krause processes them by computer and sends hearing notices. She also talks to plaintiffs and handles the day-to-day administration of court filings, just like a county clerk.
When asked her greatest challenge, Krause answered, “Plaintiffs trying to collect on (civil) judgments ... They get a judgment and think, ‘I should get that money,’ but it’s hard to collect so they have to bring it back to the court.”
The judge offers advice for a person scheduled for a court hearing. “If you have something you want the court to consider,” bring the document or exhibit. A person willing to speak on an issue also can accompany the defendant or plaintiff. “It doesn’t do you any good to say, ‘My neighbor Ralph can back me up on this’” if he’s not in court.
“I have discovered that I seem to have an affinity, a facility” for being a judge, Kellerman said. “I’m pretty good at deciding what ought to be done when people bring me their problems. It’s very different from being an attorney. An attorney’s job is to fight for one side or the other. While I think I do a good job as an attorney, I know I do a good job as the judge.”
Debbie Blank can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.
Second in a two-part series • Part 1: The city court's expenses and revenues are detailed, Feb. 7