Making a Mockery of Indigents’ Right Of Court Access, and a Former Chief Justice shows Leadership

A clerk in Texas has been making a mockery of the right of access to justice of indigents.  As explained in the Texas Tribune:

In 2012, six plaintiffs from Tarrant County sued the local district court clerk for charging them court fees even after they filed affidavits of their indigent status — also known as “pauper petitions” — when they filed for divorce. But the clerk says final divorce decrees require that each party pay its share of the court costs.

“They’re saying this boilerplate language in their final divorce decrees gives the court the right to charge court fees even though they’re indigent,” said Lee DiFilippo, who represents three of the six Tarrant County plaintiffs. (Link added)

What makes the case even more Kafkaesque is that when the plaintiffs filed their case against the practice, and after winning in the trial court, as reported by the Fort Worth Star Telegram,

In a ruling described as a blow to poor Texans, an appeals court says a trial court lacked jurisdiction when Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder was ordered to stop collecting court fees from people who can’t afford an attorney.

The ruling by the 2nd Court of Appeals, issued last week, reverses a lower court ruling that ordered Wilder to stop collecting court costs from poor litigants although they had filed uncontested indigency affidavits.

In its 2-1 ruling, the appeals court said the judgments should have come from the family courts where the divorces were handled.

Justice Lee Gabriel, who wrote the majority opinion, said the case was dismissed and the original judgment was vacated, but also emphasized that “courts are to be open to all including those who cannot afford the costs of admission.”

So now, the Texas Cavalry to the rescue.  As reported by the Texas Tribune,

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson, an attorney arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs, said individuals who file indigent petitions, otherwise known as “pauper petitions,” must be able to participate in the judicial system despite their inability to pay court fees. He called it a “hallmark of justice.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Justice Jefferson seems to have been taken seriously.

Chief Justice Nathan Hecht joined that line of questioning: “Suppose a clerk just decided to defray the expenses of the office,” adding a $50 charge per divorce filing, Hecht asked. “Would this kind of relief be proper in that situation?”

Of course, the whole charade is an outrage, and it is no surprise that Wallace Jefferson, long a friend of access to justice, and one who understands the role of courts as leaders and as institutions responsible for providing access, stepped up to the plate here.

The role that the retired Chief is playing here should be a powerful model for other chiefs and judicial leaders who want to continue to play a role in access to justice.  High visibility cases dealing with matters of principle are ideal for such roles.  Moreover public speaking and leadership work with bar, legislature, and the public are just as important, particularly as we gear up to make the 100% access Resolution campaign a movement, one that will need messengers who engender the highest trust.  Lets talk about how to support such leaders as they consider these roles.

The Texas ATJ Commission has a full summary of the case here.  Lots more materials here, on the website of Lee DiFilippo’s Holistic Law Center.  Good work all around.

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About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
This entry was posted in Access to Justice Generally, Court Fees and Costs, Court Management. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Making a Mockery of Indigents’ Right Of Court Access, and a Former Chief Justice shows Leadership

  1. Jim says:

    Of all the places to pick this kind of fight, the clerk did it in divorce? The combination of Kras, Ortwein, and Boddie make pretty clear that divorce is one of the few areas that the _federal_ Constitution has something to say about court fees.

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