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Court fees veto gains publicity from Nixon letter, bills had enough votes to override

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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.

Senate Bill 67 and House Bill 799 would have added new fees to court cases to help pay for building and maintaining new and existing county jails around the state.

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.

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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

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Missouri Public Radio State House Reporter Marshall Griffin is a proud alumnus of the University of Mississippi (a.k.a., Ole Miss), and has been in radio for over 20 years, starting out as a deejay. His big break in news came when the first President Bush ordered the invasion of Panama in 1989. Marshall was working the graveyard shift at a rock station, and began ripping news bulletins off the old AP teletype and reading updates between songs. From there on, his radio career turned toward news reporting and anchoring. In 1999, he became the capital bureau chief for Florida's Radio Networks, and in 2003 he became News Director at WFSU-FM/Florida Public Radio. During his time in Tallahassee he covered seven legislative sessions, Governor Jeb Bush's administration, four hurricanes, the Terri Schiavo saga, and the 2000 presidential recount. Before coming to Missouri, he enjoyed a brief stint in the Blue Ridge Mountains, reporting and anchoring for WWNC-AM in Asheville, North Carolina. Marshall lives in Jefferson City with his wife, Julie, their dogs, Max and Mason, and their cat, Honey.
Marshall Griffin
St. Louis Public Radio State House Reporter Marshall Griffin is a native of Mississippi and proud alumnus of Ole Miss (welcome to the SEC, Mizzou!). He has been in radio for over 20 years, starting out as a deejay. His big break in news came when the first President Bush ordered the invasion of Panama in 1989. Marshall was working the graveyard shift at a rock station, and began ripping news bulletins off an old AP teletype and reading updates between songs. From there on, his radio career turned toward news reporting and anchoring. In 1999, he became the capital bureau chief for Florida's Radio Networks, and in 2003 he became News Director at WFSU-FM/Florida Public Radio. During his time in Tallahassee he covered seven legislative sessions, Governor Jeb Bush's administration, four hurricanes, the Terri Schiavo saga, and the 2000 presidential recount. Before coming to Missouri, he enjoyed a brief stint in the Blue Ridge Mountains, reporting and anchoring for WWNC-AM in Asheville, North Carolina. Marshall lives in Jefferson City with his wife, Julie, their dogs, Max and Liberty Belle, and their cat, Honey.
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