Properly Funding Courts. A Report on Michigan

If there is an broken  Achilles heel of the state court systems it is the way we fund our courts. Minnesota went through an analysis decades ago. I served on two Commissions (one appointed by the Governor and one appointed by the Supreme Court). The change necessary is not easy……but in life change is often difficult but necessary. The Detroit Free Press reports, “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. (Photo: Ingham County)

“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.”

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