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In re Adoption of Minor Children J.T.D.

Supreme Court of Indiana

December 4, 2014

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF MINOR CHILDREN: J.T.D. AND J.S.: INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF CHILD SERVICES, Appellant/Intervenor,
v.
N.E., Appellee/Petitioner Prospective Adoptive Parent

Appeal from the Lake Superior Court, Nos. 45D02-1306-AD-1 and 45D02-1306-AD-2. The Honorable Calvin D. Hawkins, Judge. On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 45A03-1308-AD-310.

FOR APPELLANT: Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana, Robert J. Henke, David E. Corey, Deputy Attorneys General, Indianapolis, Indiana.

FOR APPELLEES: Larry D. Stassin, Layer, Tanzillo, Stassin & Babcock, P.C., Dyer, Indiana.

Rush, Chief Justice. Dickson, Rucker, David, and Massa, JJ., concur.

OPINION

Page 825

Rush, Chief Justice.

Local rules cannot confer, revoke, or override subject matter jurisdiction, but they may properly prescribe venue--the particular location among courts that have

Page 826

jurisdiction for cases to be heard. Here, the Lake Superior Court has four divisions, " civil (including probate), criminal, county, and juvenile," Ind. Code § § 33-33-45-3, -21(a) (2008), none of which is a " separate probate court" that would have exclusive adoption jurisdiction, see I.C. § 31-19-1-2(a). N.E. filed two adoption petitions in one of the Civil Division courts, violating a local rule that all adoptions (a type of probate case) must be filed in the Juvenile Division. The trial court, in turn, declined to transfer the cases to the Juvenile Division, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Largely in an effort to adhere to dicta in one of our previous cases, it held the local rule impermissibly impinged on the jurisdiction of the Superior Court's " civil (including probate)" division. We disagree. The local rule does not impermissibly expand jurisdiction beyond statutory bounds, but simply prescribes venue--and like all local rules, it is binding on the courts and litigants. The trial court erred in refusing to transfer these adoptions to the Juvenile Division, and we reverse and remand accordingly.

Facts and Procedural History

J.T.D. (born in 2011) and J.S. (born in 2009) are siblings. Both tested drug-positive at birth, and were immediately removed from their parents. The Juvenile Division of the Lake Superior Court has adjudicated them both to be children in need of services (CHINS), and those CHINS cases are still open. The Juvenile Division terminated both parents' rights over J.S. in 2012, and a similar petition for J.T.D. remains pending.

The children's cousin N.E. was their foster parent and planned to adopt them. But on March 27, 2013, the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) petitioned to remove the children from her care after she violated her confidentiality agreement with DCS by using the children's confidential information, and other false or misleading information, on a fundraising website seeking donations to defray household expenses. The Juvenile Division found removal was in the children's best interests, and placed them in a new pre-adoptive foster home. The Juvenile Division later denied N.E.'s petition to intervene in the CHINS cases.

After the Juvenile Division denied her leave to intervene, N.E. filed petitions to adopt the children in Lake Superior Court 2, part of the court's Civil Division. But filing in that court contravened Lake County's Caseload Allocation Plan--a local rule requiring adoptions of minors, among other case types, " to be exclusively filed in the Juvenile Division," though the Juvenile Division may then transfer a limited number of such cases to the Circuit Court and each room of the Superior Court's Civil Division. Lake County adopted the Caseload Allocation Plan to comply with this Court's mandate that each county " by a local rule, implement a caseload allocation plan . . . that ensures an even distribution of judicial workload among the courts of record in the county." Ind. Administrative Rule 1(E). Citing the Caseload Allocation Plan, DCS and the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) moved to intervene in the adoptions and transfer them to the Juvenile Division.

In the trial court, DCS argued that the Caseload Allocation Plan " expands the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Division to include all adoptions of minors, and it clearly says all adoptions of minors are to be exclusively filed in the Juvenile Division." But N.E. countered that because " local rules can't supersede legislative enactments," the statute creating the Lake Superior Court's " civil ( including probate ), criminal, county, and juvenile divisions" was controlling over the Caseload Allocation

Page 827

Plan and gave the trial court probate jurisdiction. Ind. Code § 33-33-45-21 (emphasis added). The trial court agreed with N.E. and denied the motion to transfer to the Juvenile Division. Its written order was summary, but it explained its rationale at the conclusion of the hearing:

The weighted caseload [rule] is simply a methodology . . . to make sure that judges work, and that's about it . . . . So it's a paper process.
Now having said that, . . . the [local] rules do not trump the statute. . . . They just don't.
And all it takes is an individual who looks at [Indiana Code 31-19-2-2, requiring adoptions of minors to be filed " with the clerk of the court having probate jurisdiction" ] to say, " I'm going to comply with the statute." And I could have said because of the weighted caseload, and still could say, " I'm ...

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