The Texas Supreme Court scrutinized the legality of court costs imposed on indigent plaintiffs — in this case, fees the Tarrant County clerk’s office charged six poor plaintiffs pursuing divorces — during oral arguments on Wednesday.
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.”
Christopher Ponder, the assistant district attorney representing the Tarrant County clerk’s office, told the court the clerk's office was within its rights to pursue court fees because standard divorce decrees require that each party pay his or her share of the court cost. He suggested the divorce decree language overrides the "pauper petition."
“I think it’s important to remember that the clerk has an accounting function,” Ponder said. “These costs just don’t disappear. They have to be accounted for somewhere.”
Jefferson argued that the "pauper petitions" are not overruled by what he called the "boilerplate language" on court costs included in standard divorce decrees.
And several justices expressed doubt that the county had the right to set court fees to cover administrative expenses in the case of indigent petitioners.
“If there’s no specific monetary finding that you’re receiving some sort of award" from the person you're divorcing, Justice Eva Guzman asked, where along the process does either party incur an obligation to pay court fees?
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?”
Ponder argued that he could not advocate for a system where a clerk would read a judgment issued by a judge — even with boilerplate language — and be powerless to enforce it.
Jefferson again emphasized that monetary judgments — those a judge awards to one party from another — would still be enforceable. He said he was specifically challenging court fees in cases involving indigent petitioners.
Court fees have become a central issue for civil rights groups nationwide, especially after Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., last year. A subsequent report by the U.S. Department of Justice found the city relied heavily on municipal ticketing and court fees to bolster the budget — and that African Americans were disproportionately targeted for such payments.
In a brief submitted to the Texas Supreme Court by the Texas Access to Justice Commission, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and the Texas Civil Rights project, lawyers argued that court fees pose a “serious threat to access to justice.”
The lawyers who filed the brief called on the court to issue a broad ruling, clarifying indigent petitions in all cases, not just in the context of divorce proceedings.
That would be “only one step toward discouraging the abuses present here,” the brief said.
The practice of charging poor petitioners administrative court fees “could be barred with a single injunction,” it added.
Terri Langford contributed to this report.