Although the court system is a public service, like schools, roads and libraries, the costs of the court system fall disproportionately on those least able to afford it: low-income criminal defendants.Typically public services are funded through taxes, reflecting the fact that the state provides those services for everyone’s benefit. Courts, however, are treated differently from other public services: they obtain much of their funding from the fines, fees and costs they impose on people who are indigent. As a result, even the smallest of offenses can result in an enormous and financially crippling bill.
In March 2018 the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to hear a case about whether certain court costs are unlawfully imposed because they are a tax. The ACLU of Michigan joined the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan (CDAM) and the Legal Services Association of Michigan (LSAM) in filing a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that the costs are an impermissible tax and emphasizing the inequity of the current system for court funding.
In November 2019 the Supreme Court dismissed the case without issuing a decision. Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, in a separate opinion, highlighted the conflicts created when the budgets of lower courts are determined by how much revenue they raise through imposing costs. She urged the legislature to act on the recommendations of a trial court funding commission “before the pressure placed on local courts causes the system to boil over.”
(People v. Cameron; ACLU Attorney Miriam Aukerman; Anne Yantus of CDAM and Robert Gillett of LSAM.)