The Michigan Supreme Court has rejected a challenge to the practice of charging people for the costs of running local courts, a law that brings in tens of millions of dollars each year across the state and helps prop up ailing city budgets.
Critics call it an illegal tax on people convicted of crimes, mostly the poor who can’t afford it. They say it also puts judges in the unseemly position of using the criminal justice system to raise money.
Months after hearing arguments, the Supreme Court released a two-sentence order Wednesday, saying a 2017 appeals court decision will stand. Separately, Chief Justice Bridget McCormack urged lawmakers to seriously consider the recommendations of a special commission “before the pressure placed on local courts causes the system to boil over.”
The case involved a man, Shawn Cameron Jr., who was convicted of assault in Washtenaw County and ordered to pay $1,611, in addition to any fines or restitution for the crime. Courts can consider staff salaries, utility costs and other services necessary to operate a court. Someone who is acquitted doesn’t get a bill.
More than $120 million has been collected statewide since 2016, mostly in District Court, the ground level of justice in Michigan, which handles traffic tickets, drunken driving cases and other misdemeanors.
The appeals court acknowledged it’s a tax against “unwilling individuals,” not the general public. But the court said it’s constitutional, partly because local courts must show that costs are reasonably related to operations.
McCormack said the current system will “limp forward,” at least until the law expires in October 2020 and lawmakers are forced to do something.
“Assigning judges to play tax collector erodes confidence in the judiciary and may seriously jeopardize a defendant’s right to a neutral and detached magistrate,” McCormack said.
In April, the Trial Court Funding Commission recommended that court revenue be sent to Lansing for distribution to local courts based on caseload and other factors. Criminal defendants still might get hit with court costs, but the state would set a schedule, not judges or local officials.
“It’s not the state taking over the courts. But the dollar amount would be standardized,” said Tom Boyd, commission chairman and a District Court judge in Ingham County.