When it comes to paying for Michigan’s courts, says the attorney with the State Appellate Defender Office, “the most vulnerable people are essentially in charge … The public would be shocked at the amount people are fined. Those fees can be very high, and they are determined judge by judge.”
In September, the Michigan Trial Court Funding Commission wrote that the state’s courts have become “dependent upon court assessments” to fund their operations. The commission reported that in 2017, Michigan courts collected $418 million from criminal defendants–29 percent of their budgets.
To state senator Jeff Irwin it’s part of “a very troubling trend over the last several decades” for courts to impose heavy fees on defendants. The state, he says, is “running the courts on the backs of the poor and really maximizing the revenue from fees.”
The funding commission also deplored the trend. “Michigan residents going to court should not face a judge who needs money from a defendant to satisfy demands for court operating expenses,” it wrote. And it warned that the practice itself may not be legally defensible: “Michigan’s trial courts are facing the possibility of a financial emergency due to changes in financing methods brought on by People v. Cameron.”
David-Martin brought that case on behalf of Shawn Cameron, who in 2013 was convicted of domestic assault in Washtenaw County Trial Court and assessed $1,611 in court costs. She argued that the fee was unconstitutional because it allowed a court to “raise its entire budget, if it wants, off the backs of criminally convicted individuals.”
Last July, the Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear Cameron’s appeal on technical grounds. In her concurring opinion, chief justice Bridget McCormack wrote that “denying leave to appeal in this case will allow our current system of trial court funding in Michigan to limp forward–at least until [the governing state law] sunsets” in October.
Irwin says the legislature created the commission to study the issue the last time it extended the law, in 2017. However, he suspects that his colleagues will just extend it again this year.
“I would be surprised if we came together on a real great statewide funding system,” he says. “But I do think that’s where we need to go. “
The burden on defendants varies from court to court. Ann Arbor’s Fifteenth District Court gets 36 percent of its funding from fines and fees, while the county’s 14A District Court gets 39 percent. But 14B District Court in Ypsilanti Township gets a whopping 86 percent of its budget from people who appear before it.
That money comes from “court costs, probation fees, ordinance fines and costs, and forfeited bonds,” says 14B court administrator and magistrate Mark Nelson. Most of the rest of its $1.8 million budget comes from state support for its drug court. The township contributes nothing to the operation of the court.
In contrast, Ann Arbor’s 15th District got 57 percent of its $4.9 million 2019 budget from the city. Parking tickets accounted for more than half of its fines and fees, with the rest coming from traffic tickets and other ordinance violations.
Of the county’s three district courts, 14A has the biggest budget, $6.7 million–not surprising, since it operates courts in Ypsilanti, Pittsfield, Saline, and Chelsea. But the county government covers 59 percent of that total.
The county pays an even larger share–67 percent–of the $21 million budget for the Washtenaw County Trial Court (aka the 22nd Circuit Court). Most of the rest comes from the state, with fines and fees providing less than 4 percent.
“Trial court deals with felonies,” 14A court administrator Lisa Fusik explains in an email. “They also deal with child custody, divorce, [and] a lot of probate issues so they do not get a lot of court fines and fees … more people have contact with district than with trial court so we do have more revenue from defendants’ fines and costs.”
Besides parking and traffic tickets, the district courts handle landlord-tenant suits, misdemeanor criminal cases, and civil cases with claims up to $25,000. The trial court deals with felonies and higher-value civil litigation, as well as juvenile and family cases.
“We’re very well-funded,” says Trial Court administrator Dan Dwyer. “We have a very positive relationship with our funding unit [and] in my twenty years we’ve never brought an expenditure budget in the red.”
The study commission report describes local governments pressing their courts to raise money from defendants through fines and fees. Dwyer says he saw that when he was mayor of Plymouth: “I sat on the court funding board for the district court of Plymouth, and some of the other members of that board would really get after the court for revenues going down … The court got put under a lot of scrutiny for collecting of revenues.”
Trial court chief judge Carol Kuhnke agrees that many courts feel pressed to raise money. But her courts, she says, “don’t have that tension.” She says that’s largely because, unlike most counties, Washtenaw “lets us manage our own staff [even though] by law they’re employees of the county.”
Kuhnke explains that the state requires courts to impose costs on all convicted felons–currently $1,611 in the local trial court, though judges have the power to waive or reduce that. “We also assess if someone has had an attorney appointed to represent them. That charge is $650, which again I can reduce or eliminate.”
Ironically, the fact that most local courts are well-funded could hurt them if the state moves to reduce reliance on fines and fees. That’s because the funding commission recommended making court staffs state employees–paying them out of revenue that currently stays with local courts.
There’s pressure to do something. In her opinion in the Cameron case, Chief Judge McCormack wrote: “I urge the Legislature to take seriously the recommendations of the Commission before the pressure placed on local courts causes the system to boil over.”
Dwyer says he “absolutely agrees” that court costs if they’re assessed should be the same across the state of Michigan. “That’s easy to implement: just pass a statute.”
But “when they talk about equal funding, we’re one of the courts that’s up here”–Dwyer raises one hand above his head–“and there’s a lot of courts down here”–he lowers his other hand to his waist. “If everybody comes to the middle then we’ve lost,” he says, holding his hands up to show the gap.
Irwin agrees that redistributing existing court revenue would hurt well-funded courts like ours. He says the state would have to come up with an additional $400 million to fund them all well.
In the worst case, centralizing funding in Lansing could put the courts on the downhill trajectory followed by school funding since voters passed Proposal A in 1994. From 1995 through 2015, an MSU study released last year found, Michigan ranked dead last in the country for school funding growth.
Like Irwin, Kuhnke suspects the legislature will extend the current authorization when it expires this fall. But she and nearly everyone else interviewed figures the state will sooner or later take over court funding.
When that happens, Kuhnke says, “I don’t think justice is going to crash in Washtenaw County. One way or another we will figure out how to operate.”But they’ll likely have to do it with less money.