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No End in Sight for Court Fees

If users of the state’s court system are hoping to see lower court fees any time soon, they likely won’t find an ally in S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal.

During a hearing last week before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Toal, who heads the state’s Judicial Department, said there “certainly can be some restructuring of the fees” and repeated an earlier pledge not to raise fees.

But she made no promises to immediately seek to eliminate or reduce any of the filing and motion fees in circuit and magistrate courts, or fees charged on alimony and child support payments ordered by family court judges.

In fact, Toal made no commitments even when presented with the possibility of the passage of a proposal that would generate an estimated $38 million more for the court system in the first year after its enactment.

Under state law, filing a lawsuit in South Carolina’s circuit courts costs $150; motions filed with a suit cost an additional $25 each. Filing a civil complaint in magistrate’s courts costs $25, and most other civil filings in that court cost $10 each.

For child support or alimony payments ordered by family court judges, there’s an additional 5 percent “assessment” on the amount of the payments.

Those costs can be a burden on people with lower incomes.

The Nerve’s review of state budget records found that Judicial Department “other” fund revenues, which include fees imposed on court users, have jumped by more than $4 million since fiscal year 2006.

Toal is scheduled to give her annual state-of-the-judiciary speech today before the General Assembly. Among other things, she is expected to ask lawmakers to approve an increase in general recurring funds for three additional circuit court judges and six more family court judges for next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

But if her statements made to the Senate Judiciary subcommittee last week are any indication, she likely won’t be making any announcements about reducing court fees in the near future.

Collectively, the various  fees imposed on users of the state’s court system are projected by the Judicial Department to generate more than $14.6 million this fiscal year. That represents about 21.5 percent of the total $68.1 million in general, federal and other funds appropriated this fiscal year for the department.

And that court-fee total doesn’t include another $4.3 million generated by technology-support service fees, attorney license and law exam fees, and a portion of a $25 surcharge on misdemeanor offenses.

Toal during last week’s hearing said she has received the most complaints about the $25 surcharge, which she has described as “enormous,” noting, “That’s where I think there needs to be restructuring.”

The Judicial Department receives only a small portion of that amount. Under state law, the state Treasurer’s Office receives a relatively small collection fee from the surcharge; the Judicial Department receives 8.56 percent of the balance, with the remainder split mainly among various state law enforcement agencies and the state prison system.

The surcharge this fiscal year is estimated to generate $1.56 million for the court system – far less than various court filing fees, and fees on alimony and child support payments.

Civil filing fees in the state’s circuit courts, for example, are projected to generate more than $6 million this fiscal year for the Judicial Department, according to documents used by Toal in a  S.C. House Ways and Means subcommittee meeting last month.

Toal during last week’s Senate Judiciary subcommittee meeting said that South Carolina’s filing fees are below the averages of other Southeastern states.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort and a subcommittee member, asked Toal if she would consider an “abatement” of some court fees if a proposed constitutional amendment (S. 423) passed that would designate 2 percent of the state’s total general fund revenues in the previous fiscal year to the Judicial Department.

The state Board of Economic Advisors projected that measure, sponsored by subcommittee member Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington and an attorney, would raise $106.3 million in its first year of enactment – $38.2 million more than the department’s $68.1 ratified total budget for this fiscal year.

In response to Davis’ question, Toal said that reducing fees is more complicated because other state agencies receive portions of those fees.

The Senate Judiciary subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, voted to carry over the fixed-funding formula funding resolution after Toal told the panel that she believed it would be “premature” to consider it in light of broader legislative discussions about reforming the state’s tax code.

Asked afterward if court fees should be abolished, Davis, an attorney, told The Nerve, “I wouldn’t say abolish it, but I think … it is appropriate that the majority of funding for the judicial system should come from the general fund.”

“It benefits society as a whole,” Davis said. “This whole notion that users of the court system are the only beneficiaries of the system is a flawed one.”

Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield and an attorney, said during the hearing he believed that court fees have been necessary in recent years for the judicial system to “survive.” But he also said many residents in his rural district “don’t have the money to file a (civil) complaint.”

Toal replied that after unsuccessfully pushing for an increase in court fees several years ago, she “pledged to your legislative leaders that I would not try to derive any further income from filing fees,” adding, “That was not a way that we wanted to go.”

But Toal, who has been the chief justice since 2000, didn’t say she would push to reduce or eliminate fees.

Toal has said publicly that the court system has relied more in recent years on court fees because of general fund cuts. Lawmakers, though, in 2010 restored most of the $16 million in cuts made since fiscal year 2008 after Toal unsuccessfully pushed for a bill that would have doubled certain court filing fees.

Meanwhile, the Judicial Department’s other fund revenues have been growing rapidly in recent years, from $19.55 million in fiscal year 2006 to $23.77 million at the end of last fiscal year, according to records from Office of State Budget. The total amount of other funds projected for this fiscal year is $18.9 million, though the Judicial Department’s initial estimates often are low.

To put the growth in some perspective, other funds accounted for less than 1 percent of the department’s total budget in fiscal year 2001, compared to 30 percent for this fiscal year, according to department records.

Nearly $9.6 million in other funds was carried over into this fiscal year, which started July 1, OSB records show. Combined with the total $68.1 million ratified total appropriation, the department would have about  $77.7 million to spend this year.

Toal told the panel last week that her total budget request for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, was in the “$70 (million) range.”

During the hearing, Toal noted that there have been lawsuits in other states challenging the use of court fees for non-judicial agencies. She cited a recently published report by the Conference of State Court Administrators; the president of that organization is Rosalyn Frierson, Toal’s top court administrator.

The report, titled “Courts Are Not Revenue Centers,” lays out seven “principles” for court fees. The first principle says, “Courts should be substantially funded from general governmental revenue sources, enabling them to fulfill their constitutional mandates.”

As it stands now, though, it appears that the S.C. court system will continue to rely on users of the system for a good chunk of its funding.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

 

Budget Judiciary Legislation Other Funds

Sen. Creighton Coleman Sen. Gerald Malloy Sen. Larry Martin Sen. Tom Davis S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal