Michigan residents going to court should not face a judge who needs money from a defendant to satisfy demands for court operating expenses. The recommendations contained in this report are designed to address the historic problem with money’s influence on the justice system as manifested in Michigan.
The Michigan Legislature created the Trial Court Funding Commission (TCFC), through Act 65 of 2017, to review Michigan’s trial court funding system and make recommendations. This legislation was enacted in response to People v. Cunningham, a Michigan Supreme Court decision that determined state law does not provide courts with the authority to impose costs upon criminal defendants to fund the day-to-day operation of the courts.
The TCFC first reviewed the existing trial court funding system with presentations from experts on circuit, probate, and district courts. This information was used to create a comprehensive survey of stakeholder groups to determine the nature and extent of existing problems with the trial court funding system. The TCFC next identified a set of principles to guide recommendations for change. A list of principles was created by the TCFC membership and then compared to national norms to establish a final set of governing principles.
The TCFC has been mindful of the timeliness of this work. Michigan’s trial courts are facing the possibility of a financial emergency due to changes in financing methods brought on by People v. Cameron, a case which was recently decided in the Michigan Supreme Court, in which the defendant directly challenged the constitutionality of the assessment of court operational costs as part of his sentence. Further, the United States Supreme Court in Timbs v. Indiana, issued February 20, 2019, questioned the use of courts to generate revenue, a conclusion that could impact future court funding. Finally, the TCFC reviewed the United States Department of Justice’s report and actions in response to the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where excessive police and court enforcement were used to provide municipal revenue.
In the midst of these challenges, the TCFC examined Michigan’s historic and existing trial court funding system, national innovations, and best practices, as well as some cautionary examples. After extensive review and evaluation, the commission has unanimously concluded that the existing system is broken, and it is imperative to create a stable and consistent funding source for Michigan trial courts that removes trial court judges from the role of raising money for the operation of the courts.
The recommendations outlined in this report are intended to address the following problems:
- A real or perceived conflict of interest between a judge’s impartiality and the obligation to use the courts to generate revenue;
- Inadequate funding from all sources due to excessive dependence on local government funding; and
- Unequal access to justice harming those who are most vulnerable and have the least access to financial resources.