By Jameson Cook of The Daily Tribune
A commission created last year aims to review court funding statewide and come up with suggestions on ways to fairly institute court costs and fund the justice system.
Gov. Rick Snyder appointed 14 members to the state Trial Court Funding Commission last fall after lawmakers passed a law to establish the commission “to review and recommend changes to the trial court funding system,” says a governor’s office press release.
The commission, which includes New Baltimore-based attorney Tom Rombach, met for the second time Thursday in Lansing.
Officials want to the panel to ensure those who pay court costs receive a proportionate amount of services and that all costs are going to fund the courts.
“We hope to fully and fairly finance our court system by apportioning the costs between local, state and federal funding sources,” Rombach said. “This process starts by investing money generated by the courts back into their operations.”
Commission Chairman Thomas Boyd, chief judge of 55th District Court in Mason, said the commission will move cautiously, reviewing why and how the current system was created by the new state constitution in 1963.
“It’s a big issue, and there’s lots of money involved and lots of moving parts,” Boyd said. “We want to make sure we understand this complicated issue before we go shooting from the hip. It’s staggering how complicated it is.”
Costs assessed to criminal defendants can vary widely from court to court in Michigan, and most of the courts are funded via their counties, although Macomb is one of the six counties that also have courts affiliated to their cities. County sheriff’s offices and clerk’s offices share in providing services in the courts.
The cost of the court system statewide can be counted as being in the 100s of millions of dollars, although no method has been developed to tabulate it, Boyd said.
Shelli Weisberg, political director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, is encouraged by the bi-partisan effort of this commission and the Indigent Defense Commission, which was created in 2014 and is in the process of approving plans by each court in the state to meet standards for court-appointed attorneys. The state has promised to provide $45 million to fund new costs associated with the improvements. The changes are slated to start going into effect Oct. 1, the start of the state’s next fiscal year.
The ACLU in recent years has complained about the ability of poor defendants to pay court costs and fines. In 2015, the ACLU accused Judge Carl Gerds of 38th District Court in Eastpointe of forcing poor defendants to “pay or stay” behind bars. Gerds signed an agreement promising to consider a defendant’s job status, assets, living expenses and any other special circumstances when sentencing him or her.
“Hopefully the commission can be successful in setting statewide standards,” Weisberg said. “It shows the state is paying attention to those liberty issues so people can’t go to jail just because they are poor.”
She added court funding has been an issue for a number of years but prior efforts have fallen short.
Formation of the commission party resulted from a state Supreme Court decision that said state law did not give courts the authority to assess costs. The Legislature passed a law granting the authority but included a “sunset” provision for it to expire in October 2020.
The commission has a deadline of Sept. 28, 2019 to submit its recommendations.
At its Thursday meeting in Lansing, commissioners listened to “cash flow” presentations by Kevin Oeffner, administrator of Oakland County Circuit Court; Mary Haskamp, deputy court administrator at Kalamazoo County Probate Court; and Michael Dillon, administrator of 55th District Court.
The panel also hired Public Sector Consultants for $125,000 to provide research, Boyd said. The funds will come from the commission’s $196,000 budget.
Weisberg said she is impressed with the diversity of commission membership and said Boyd was a good selection for chairman.
“These individuals have a variety of experience that will shape positive input on how we can improve the funding of our court system statewide,” Snyder said last fall in a news release.
Boyd, a judge since 2005, also sits on the Indigent Defense Commission and was an assistant attorney general under Frank Kelley.
Rombach is a former State Bar president and Macomb County Bar Association president. He is a member of the Leadership Council for the National Conference of Bar Presidents.
Other members include:
- Milton Mack Jr., the state court administrator and 25-year Wayne County Probate judge.
- Todd Drysdale of New Boston, a city administrator for the city of Wyandotte.
- Judge James Alexander of Bloomfield Hills, an Oakland Circuit Court judge since 2001.
- Judge Michelle Appel of Huntington Woods, chief judge of the 45th District Court and member of the Michigan District Judges’ Association board of directors.
- Canton Township Supervisor Patrick Williams.
- Michael Bosanac, CFO and county administrator for Monroe County.
- Eric DeLong, deputy city manager and COO of Grand Rapids.
- Shauna Dunnings, administrator of Ingham County Circuit Court.
- Judge Beth Gibson of 90th District Court in Newberry.
- Attorney Richard Poling of South Lyon.
- Attorney Shannon Schlegel of DeWitt.
- Kalkaska County Treasurer Valerie Thornburg.