Seeking to fix a “broken” legal system, a state commission is urging reforms that would remove incentives for local judges to charge guilty defendants court costs to fund court operations and other government functions.
But the Michigan Trial Court Funding Commission offers no alternative funding solution should the Michigan Supreme Court, in a pending case, strike down the constitutionality of such costs.
“Michigan residents going to court should not face a judge who needs money from a defendant to satisfy demands for court operating expenses,” the commission states in a 43-page report, released Monday.
Among its recommendations, the commission proposes the creation of a single statewide fund to collect trial court assessments and general fund payments and then “distribute appropriate monies” back to local courts based on their operational requirements.
“That money would be sent back to local courts based on what they need to do the job,” commission Chair Tom Boyd, chief judge of 55th District Court in Ingham County, told Bridge Magazine.
“After extensive review and evaluation, the commission has unanimously concluded that the existing system is broken, and it is imperative to create a stable and consistent funding source for Michigan trial courts that removes trial court judges from the role of raising money for the operation of the courts,” the report states.
Boyd was named in November 2017 to the 14-member commission by Gov. Rick Snyder, along with other judges, lawyers and public officials.
The legislature created the commission following a 2014 Michigan Supreme Court ruling that upended funding for local courts. The high court found that state law did not give judges independent authority to impose court costs on criminal defendants.
That, the court said, was the role of the legislature. In response, the Michigan Legislature passed a law that same year granting judges the right to collect some of the costs of hearing cases in which defendants were found guilty.
While the state pays judges’ salaries, day-to-day court operations are funded by county governments which can pass a portion of these costs on to people convicted of felonies. Critics argue that creates a perverse incentive for judges to find defendants guilty, since courts cannot collect costs on those defendants who are acquitted.
Those costs are often siphoned off to pay for other government functions like street lighting and public works needs, sometimes putting pressure on judges to keep revenues high.
In 2016, city, district and circuit courts statewide imposed nearly $56 million in court costs; that figure rose to more than $57 million in 2017, according to the State Court Administrative Office.
The debate over the authority of judges to impose court costs on criminal defendants goes back nearly a decade. In 2011, an Allegan County man named Fred Cunningham appealed court-imposed costs of $1,000 for his conviction of fraudulently obtaining a painkiller.
His case wound its way to the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled in 2014 that court “may impose costs in a criminal case only if those costs are authorized by statute.”
So the Legislature passed a law that year that explicitly allows courts to charge defendants for personnel and operating expenses related to their case. With the law set to expire in 2017, the Legislature voted to extend it another three years. But it expires in October 2020, leaving the issue up in the air.
Last November, the Michigan Supreme Court heard oral arguments on another case that questions court costs assessed at felony sentencing.
Shawn Cameron, a Washtenaw County man appealed $1,611 in court costs he was assessed when sentenced for an assault in 2013.
A Washtenaw Circuit Court judge upheld the costs in 2015, but Cameron's attorney argued on appeal that it amounted to an unconstitutional tax since it was an “undefined amount” set by the courts instead of the Legislature.
Marilena David-Martin, Cameron’s lawyer, protested that the practice allows a court to “raise its entire budget, if it wants, off the backs of criminally convicted individuals” because of the vagueness of the state statute on court costs.
Boyd, the commission chair, noted last July that he was told in 2005 that district courts across the state were the "cash cow of local government." Boyd recalled being summoned by the Ingham County Commission in 2006 to explain why he wasn't generating as much revenue as another judge.
"The pressure to fund the district court in sentencing is real," Boyd wrote. "It is a potentially corrupting presence in each and every criminal case."
Critics say the court system also discriminates against poor defendants by assessing fines for minor offenses they cannot pay.
In 2016, a Macomb County judge agreed to end the practice of sending poor people to jail if they couldn’t pay court fines after a woman faced jail for not paying a $455 fine for failing to have her dogs licensed.
Commission member Milt Mack, state court administrator for the Supreme Court, said the funding reforms should make it far less likely judges will see dollar signs in cases before them.
“It takes away the incentive of a community to have speed traps. You have no guarantee the money will come back. The value of speed traps evaporates.”
But the commission report leaves it to the Legislature what should happen should the Michigan Supreme Court strike down costs assessed at sentencing.
“Michigan’s trial courts are facing the possibility of a financial emergency due to changes in financing methods brought on by People v. Cameron,” the report states.
But it adds: “The TCFC leaves this potential question (of finding new sources of court funding) to the Legislature as it is beyond the scope of TCFC’s mission. Funds necessary to meet this shortfall must be appropriated by the legislature.”
The report also noted a unanimous February U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down excessive fees imposed in a property seizure case that could further impact future court funding.
The commission also recommends that the state:
- Fund technology for local courts. The report recommends the state “bear the cost of all technology” and create a uniform system of document management and technology products for all courts.
- Establish uniform assessments and centralized collections for all courts, a task it would assign to the State Court Administrative Office.
- Move toward a uniform employment system of county judges. Currently, the state pays judicial salaries in part directly and in part by reimbursement to local government. The report would make judges “direct employees of the state,” which would equalize salaries and benefits “while removing a considerable cost burden from local governments’ budgets.”
- Form a task force, led by the Supreme Court Administrative Office, to develop a plan for a new trial court funding model.
“Once the model is implemented, a Michigan Judicial Council must be established to exercise administrative policymaking authority to ensure continued progress toward a unified Michigan court system,” it states.