Constitutional Law

Fines-and-fees system that helps fund court budget is unconstitutional, 5th Circuit rules

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A federal appeals panel has ruled that a system of criminal fines and fees in the New Orleans criminal court was unconstitutional because the money is used to support a general fund overseen by the court’s judges.

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 23 on behalf of six criminal defendants who were jailed because they were unable to pay fines and fees. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law noted the decision in a press release.

The court said the temptation is too great when judges decide on ability to pay and then oversee the money that is collected.

Judge James Graves Jr., an appointee of President Barack Obama, wrote the panel opinion. Joining him were Judge James Ho, an appointee of President Donald Trump, and Judge Catharina Haynes, an appointee of President George W. Bush.

The general fund wasn’t used to pay the judges’ salaries, but it was used for staff salaries, conferences, office supplies, jury expenses, building and equipment maintenance, transcripts, insurance and other costs.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance ruled in August 2018 that it is unconstitutional to imprison people for failing to pay fines and fees without inquiring into their ability to pay. Vance also ruled it is unconstitutional for judges to determine ability to pay when court debts help pay court budgets. Vance said the practices violated the 14th Amendment.

The defendant judges appealed only the portion of Vance’s ruling that said judges couldn’t determine ability to pay while having spending authority over the fines and fees generated. Vance had found the conflict violated the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

On appeal, the judges argued the district court applied the wrong standard when interpreting decisions on institutional biases. “Essentially, the judges argue that an average man might be swayed by the institutional interest at play here, but not an average judge,” the appeals court said. “The case law simply does not support such a distinction.”

The court emphasized that it was making its decision based on the particular facts of the case, and there was no evidence the defendant judges actually succumbed to the “temptation” to keep funds flowing through their decisions.

The judges said in a statement Tuesday that they are considering an appeal, reports.

A lawyer for Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe argued the case for the criminal defendants who challenged the practice. Other groups working with Orrick on the appeal were the Lawyers’ Committee, the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law and the Louisiana Community Law Office.

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