Michigan's trial court funding system 'broken,' judicial report says

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Lansing — A report released Monday by a state commission says the system for raising and spending money for Michigan trial courts is “broken” and requires major changes, including a different funding source to distance judges from raising money for court operations through fees and tickets.

The 14-member Trial Court Funding Commission — made up of judges, lawyers and others — agreed that there is a real or perceived conflict of interest between a judge’s impartiality and the obligation to use the courts to generate revenue; that inadequate funding from all sources is due to to excessive dependence on local government dollars, and that the discrepancies create unequal access to justice.

Circuit courts are fund users, one judge said, with budgets decided by their respective counties. District courts are “funders” — raising revenue with court fees and tickets. More than 70% of district court budgets are funded by local government support and court revenues.

“The (funding) system is unquestionably broken,” said Mason 55th District Judge Thomas Boyd. “A judge wants to hire another clerk or a new building has to be built. How to do it? They are asked: ‘Can you raise some revenue in court to pay for it?’ The answer is: 'Sure.'

Judge Thomas Boyd of 55th District Court in Mason.

"And it happens in court after court," he said.

“And at one end, those who are most vulnerable and have the least access to financial resources are harmed,” Boyd said. “It’s got to be changed.”

The report says it costs up to $1.44 billion a year to run Michigan's trial courts. Among its recommendations:

• Establish a stable court funding system with help from the state for receipt of all trial court assessments and state general fund payments. Distribute funds to trial courts based on the costs of operation.

• Provide all needed technology for courts, including hardware, software, infrastructure, training and support.

• Move toward a uniform employment system in which judicial salaries and benefits are equal. Unlike the inequality of the current payment system, all judges, court administrators and probate registers could become state employees and remove the cost burden from local government budgets.

"Courts across the state are told by their local mayor and councilpersons that if they don't increase their revenues, their budgets are going to be cut — what kind of an effect do you think that has on a judge?" asked State Court Administrator Milton L. Mack Jr. who was on the Wayne County Probate bench for 25 years, 18 as chief judge.

"Why does this need to be fixed?" posed Mack. "You don't need to go any farther than the first sentence on the first page of this report: 'Michigan residents going to court should not face a judge who needs money from a defendant to satisfy demands for court operating expenses.'

State Court Administrator Milton L. Mack Jr.

"A person going to court shouldn't be looked at like a cash cow, a pay day," he added. 

Mack said the commission's recommendations go beyond the funding.

"Having a uniform technology in courts rather than every one having its own system, might be a great way to save money and also provide the best of service to everyone."

Oakland Circuit Judge James Alexander, the nominee on the commission by the Michigan Judges Association, noted the panel was formed by the state Legislature in response to the Michigan Supreme Court decision in People v. Cunningham, which determined that state law does not allow courts to impose costs on criminal defendants to fund court operations.

“While this is not a major issue for the circuit courts, it is for the district courts who are looked upon as “funders” by their funding units,” he said.

“We are recommending centralizing many services and funding,” said Alexander. “Since the funding issue is not yet, but could become, a crisis, I think we are all hopeful that the Legislature and the Supreme Court will study these recommendations and begin implementation.”

Copies of the 43-report were sent to the governor, state legislative leaders and the Michigan Supreme Court. On Monday, it was distributed to other lawmakers with the hope of initiating discussion on how to meet its stated goals.

“I encourage our state's leadership to implement the report's recommendations," said Newberry 92nd District Judge Beth Gibson, a commission member who is president of the Michigan District Judges Association.

"To do so will ensure equal access to justice for our citizens, stabilize court funding across our state and squarely place Michigan in the forefront for judicial reform on a national level.“


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