December 18

May filing fees be used for non-court purposes?

first_imgMay filing fees be used for non-court purposes? May filing fees be used for non-court purposes? Senior EditorThe trial judge called it an “unconstitutional tax on litigants.”But lawyers for the Solicitor General’s Office and the Chief Financial Officer called it a mere bookkeeping entry method that does not rise to a constitutional dimension.Oral arguments October 7 at the Florida Supreme Court, in Gov. Charlie Crist v. Robert M. Ervin and Davisson F. Dunlap, involved a challenge to the Legislature’s practice of sending part of civil filing fees and costs to the General Revenue Fund to operate non-court state agencies (cases SC10-1317 and SC10-1319).Second Circuit Judge Frank Sheffield agreed with Ervin and Dunlap that the practice violates open access to courts and due process, saying the first $80 of filing fees and costs sent to general revenue “are not being used to provide access to courts or being spent on court-related services.” (See opinion here. )But Courtney Brewer, with the Solictor General’s Office, told the court: “It is critical to note that there are four issues that are not challenged by the plaintiffs in the case. First, plaintiffs do not challenge the amount of the court filing fees imposed on them. Second, the plaintiffs do not challenge the constitutionality of the imposition of the filing fees.“Third, this case is not about the adequate funding of the court system. And, finally, this case is not about the right of access to the courts. No one has been denied that access.“This case is only about the deposit of a portion of the filing fees into general revenue. And no constitutional provisions or decisions of any Florida court prevents the Legislature from doing that or requires a particular accounting method used by the Legislature.”Justice Peggy Quince asked both of the state’s lawyers whether there are “other situations where people pay fees for a specific purpose and part of it goes into general revenue.”Brewer said she couldn’t think of anything off the top of her head.Richard Donelan, Jr., representing CFO Alex Sink, answered, “I used to buy the panther [specialty license] tags until I found out funds that went into the Panther Trust Fund were taken off the top and spent on other things.”“I guess my real problem here is that people pay filing fees for access to the courts, basically,” Justice Quince said.“And so if monies they pay in order to use the court system are then diverted and being used for some other purpose, are they, then, subsidizing something other than their access to the court system?”Brewer responded that the monies are not being used for another purpose because “more funds come out of general revenue than go in from the filing fees” to fund the administration of justice.She likened it to getting reimbursed for travel expenses for her job, but rather than directly sending that money to her credit card company, she deposits the check into her savings account.Sidney Matthew, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, countered that when the court clerks collect filing fees, “they are immediately earmarked as trust funds” and are to be kept separate from general revenue.“The Legislature does not take these monies, diverted to general revenue and reappropriate them back into the court system. The last two to three years, that has not been the case,” Matthew said.As noted in the Supreme Court’s past three opinions on certifying the needs for judges, Matthew said the courts are underfunded.“Backlogs and delays are being caused, and civil cases are put to the back of the docket, behind speedy trial criminal cases. The courts are in crisis, because the Legislature is underfunding the court system. And we are crying out for some help. We need stability in court funding.”Quince said she “appreciated the argument” about the court being underfunded, but asked for dollar amounts.Matthew said the $80 per filing fee in question amounted to $186 million in 2008, out of about $500 million in total filing fees collected. The total spent on the administration of justice was $1.1 billion in 2008.“Why then are we having this argument that this is an access-to-the-courts issue?” Quince asked.“The reason is that justice shall not be sold, denied, or delayed,” Matthew responded.“The $186 million will go a long way toward getting our civil action cases to trial, rather than run them through the mill of the legislative process.. . . “Trust funds have a purpose. It is stability in funding. And we are asking that the trust be put back into the words ‘trust fund.’” November 1, 2010 Jan Pudlow Senior Editor Regular Newslast_img read more

September 29

Wages of fear

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