ABA Speaks On The Judicial Ethics of Imposing Fines & Fees

Formal Opinion 490 March 24, 2020

Ethical Obligations of Judges in Collecting Legal Financial Obligations and Other Debts. Here is the summary:

This opinion addresses the ethical requirement of judges under the Model Code of Judicial Conduct, Rules 1.1 and 2.6, to undertake a meaningful inquiry into a litigant’s ability to pay court fines, fees, restitution, other charges, bail, or civil debt before using incarceration as punishment for failure to pay, as inducement to pay or appear, or as a method of purging a financial obligation whenever state or federal law so provides. Meaningful inquiry is also required by Rules 1.2, 2.2, and 2.5 as a fundamental element of procedural justice necessary to maintain the integrity, impartiality, and fairness of the administration of justice and the public’s faith in it. According to the same Rules, a judge may not set, impose, or collect legal financial obligations under circumstances that give the judge an improper incentive either to multiply legal financial obligations or to fail to inquire into a litigant’s ability to pay. The opinion also discusses innovative guidance on best practices for making ability to pay inquiries, including model bench cards, methods of notice, and techniques for efficiently eliciting relevant financial information from litigants.

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