Court fees veto gains publicity from Nixon letter, bills had enough votes to override
Court fees – which came under Justice Department criticism after the unrest in Ferguson – are getting attention again.
In a press release issued Wednesday, Gov. Jay Nixon thanked the Missouri Bar for backing his veto of two bills that would have raised some court fees.
For example, SB 67 would have authorized a new range of surcharges in Jasper County for the purpose of funding the "purchase, lease, and operation of a county juvenile center and the county judicial facility. A $10 surcharge would be levied for civil cases, $25 for misdemeanor criminal cases, and $50 for felony criminal cases, although a judge could waive the surcharge if a defendant is found to be indigent. Traffic citations would not be included in the new surcharges.
Senate Bill 67 would also levy a $1 surcharge for criminal and civil cases in some regional juvenile detention districts, and up to $10 for cases in Howell County, again excluding traffic citations. The surcharges for Jasper and Howell counties, and for the juvenile detention districts, would automatically sunset in 2025.
In his letter, Nixon thanked the Missouri Bar for opposing the bills, which he says would have implemented "back-door tax increases" that would have "further eroded" public trust in the judicial system.
Nixon's full letter can be viewed here.
State Rep. RebeccaRoeber, R-Lee's Summit, sponsored HB 799.
"I don’t see this as a back-door tax, I see it as a user's fee that the people that are using the judicial system are helping pay for the upkeep of it," Roeber said. "The fees are quite small, (and) I know it's in addition to other fees that have been tacked on, but they're also very specific -- they're building specific."
Sen. Mike Cunningham, R-Rogersville, sponsored SB 67.
"If you look (at) what it costs to operate a courtroom, my gosh, it's got to be hundreds of dollars an hour (by) the time you take a judge's salary, a bailiff, a court reporter, whoever else is in there. ... I think the people that use (the court system) need to pay for it," Cunningham said. "I don't think you need to go to the people and ask for a bond issue to pay for something they don't use."
Both bills passed with bipartisan support and overwhelming veto-proof majorities; SB 67 passed the Senate 31-3 and passed the House 128-17. House Bill 799 passed the House 139-12 and passed the Senate 28-4.
"I think some of the Democrats will peel off because the governor vetoed (HB 799), but I think we've got the votes (to override)," Roeber said.
Meanwhile, Missouri Bar President Reuben Shelton released a statement after receiving Nixon's letter, in which he said they supported some portions of the vetoed bills.
"The bar has supported concepts concerning other aspects related to the administration of justice which were included in these omnibus bills," Shelton said. "One example includes supporting the transfers of divisions of the circuit courts where there is an objective need for such a transfer."
But he made it clear that the bar strongly agreed with Nixon's opposition to the surcharges included in the bills.
"The Missouri Bar believes all Missourians should have equal access to justice. We support the building and upkeep of courts, but we do not believe capital improvement projects should be paid for by taxing those who seek resolution through the courts. That’s because increased court costs can make the cost of access to justice too high, restricting access of ordinary citizens to the state’s courts to resolve legitimate disputes."
Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport
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