Opinion: Legislature has to act fast to avert trial court crisis

By Jon Campbell
Michigan Association of Counties

Legislation introduced at the Capitol on Sept. 9 will fix a funding crisis in Michigan's local courts. Without prompt action on and passage of House Bill 5785, Michigan's trial-level courts, which handle almost 3 million criminal and traffic cases a year, will lack the resources they need to properly administer justice in the state.

Like a summer thunderstorm, this crisis brewed up suddenly. In June, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in People v. Cunningham that trial courts could not impose against defendants some of the costs they have passed on for about a decade.

Without these "user fees," circuit and district courts across Michigan would be short millions of dollars.

A survey of counties by the Michigan Association of Counties (MAC) in the aftermath of the June case found, for example, that Grand Traverse County would lose as much as $500,000 a year. Clinton County's estimate is a whopping $1.9 million.

The remedy to this dilemma is simple common sense: Restore in law the authority local courts have exercised for years, while taking the opportunity to improve practices by increasing transparency of court costs applied to defendants.

Quick action is needed because local courts have been restricted in their work since the June ruling, and the two alternatives to a restoration of “user fees” are, in a word, unwise.
The state could, for example, decide to create a new revenue stream - read tax - to properly fund lower courts. In an election year, that’s as unlikely as it is inadvisable.

Of greater concern is a lack of action, which would leave it to Michigan's 83 counties to find new dollars to divert to courts.

Yet, Michigan counties already provide about half of the $1 billion-plus used by local courts each year. About $1 in every $10 in general funds in Grand Traverse County goes to local courts now. In Newaygo County, almost 40 percent of the general fund budget goes to the court system. In Saginaw County, 25 percent goes to courts. In Cass County, the figure is 30 percent; in Marquette County, 22 percent.

So, to come up with more money for courts would certainly mean cuts to other key services such as road patrols, jails, health initiatives, foster care and animal control.

Since the Supreme Court decision, a coalition of public servants and interests, led by MAC, has been educating legislators on the issues at play. This effort boils down to three points: “user fees” have worked as a fair method to fund court operations; courts already are the single largest unfunded mandate imposed by the state on the counties; and the state itself is unlikely to identify the necessary dollars in the face of other policy demands, such as road funding.

If legislative action isn't taken to reverse the Cunningham ruling's effects, these percentages only will soar. And counties, trying to recover from years of underfunding by the state, are in no position to absorb a huge new burden.

It's also important to note that the Michigan Supreme Court didn’t rule that court costs were fundamentally improper. Rather, the Cunningham decision stated that courts only could impose costs identified in statute. If laws are changed to restore the authority that trial courts have exercised for nearly a decade, a major crisis is averted for courts and counties.
Legislators have plenty to do in September, but passage of court funding legislation has to be at the top of the list.

Jon Campbell is an Allegan County commissioner and the incoming president of the Michigan Association of Counties (www.micounties.org), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advances education, communication and cooperation among county government officials in Michigan.

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