From the Top
Michigan’s trial court system is funded by a complex mixture of tax revenue and payments assessed and collected by the courts themselves. One of the most problematic aspects of this funding mechanism is that the bill is often footed by criminal defendants through fees and fines as part of their sentencing, which generates up to $418 million every year—26 percent of the total operating costs of Michigan’s trial courts. Over time, this amount became more and more concerning, as the practice of funding day-to-day operation of the courts in this manner wasn’t legal until 2014, suggesting that the method was quickly seized upon as a way to produce revenue. This called into question the independence of judicial decision makers. When these fees and fines were challenged in both the state and federal Supreme Courts as unconstitutional, the trial courts faced potential fallout from a financial emergency.
Where would the funding come from?
The Cast and Crew
The Michigan Legislature created the Trial Court Funding Commission (TCFC) in response to People v. Cunningham, a Michigan Supreme Court case that determined state law does not give courts the authority to impose costs on criminal defendants to fund day-to-day court operation. Former Gov. Rick Snyder appointed 14 commissioners representing a wide variety of people in trial court operation and financing. The TCFC dedicated itself to providing an open-minded review of Michigan’s current trial court funding system and recommending changes that would address its deeper issues.
The Plot Thickens
The operations and funding mechanisms of Michigan’s court system, driven by billions of dollars from many different sources, are extraordinarily complex to an outside view. Knowing this, and needing further research to provide a high-level, objective examination of these systems and their impacts, the TCFC approached PSC to begin the exhaustive work of building an understanding of the inner workings of more than 165 funding systems across the state and their impact on stakeholders. This research would involve exploration of thousands of survey responses and eventually produce hundreds of pages of data and other information.
To complicate the issue, the ethical quandaries surrounding the work were severe—Michigan residents going to court should not face a judge who needs money from a defendant to satisfy demands for court operating expenses. The need for this revenue could affect the amount of fees and fines levied against defendants, creating an environment of unequal access to justice in situations where a person can’t pay what they owe.
Deeply time-bound by impending court decisions that could decide the fate of the commission, the funding systems, and the courts themselves, PSC began quick work.
“PSC’s involvement with the commission was invaluable. With the amount of information we had and our rudimentary understanding of the statewide court funding system, we counted on them to crunch the numbers and put us on the right track to envisioning a functioning, sustainable justice system for Michigan.”
Judge Thomas Boyd, State Court Administrator
Research, Innovate, Action
PSC stepped in to facilitate the TCFC, grounding a specialized group of individuals, including judges, attorneys, court administrators, the state government, and others in the sheer amount of information gathered from the state’s court funding system. From over 1,000 responses to the stakeholder survey conducted by PSC and other data sources, it was found that the total cost of Michigan’s court system (outside of the supreme court and court of appeals) amounts to between $1.14 billion and $1.44 billion. PSC researched funding system best practices and lessons learned on a nationwide scale to provide a nonpartisan, objective look at what builds an effective funding system. This work led to a set of guiding principles and a vision of a court system focused on administering justice, ensuring public safety, and upholding a high level of public confidence. One where justice, not revenue, is the desired outcome.
Alongside deep research and skillful facilitation, the project required a unique sense of understanding and ability to translate complex issues clearly and concisely. With a final deliverable of a robust research report, the language and organization of the document needed to provide quick information to legislators, court officials, and others when it came to accepting recommendations of what to do in the event of the impending financial disaster. Voices in legal areas can be quite particular, and at times even exclusive, when describing the workings of the complex court system—an issue which already plagued the underlying ethical challenges of the system’s functioning. PSC provided a report expertly translated into accessible language that would prove exceptionally useful for those who came to rely on it.
For Michigan and Beyond
With the guidance of the research, surveys, principles, and vision, PSC and the TCFC devised a set of five bold recommendations to the governor, the Michigan Legislature, and the Michigan Supreme Court that could lead Michigan to a more sustainable trial court funding system:
- Establish a stable court funding system
- Provide all court technology needs
- Establish uniform assessments and centralized collections
- Move toward a uniform employment system
- Establish a transition plan for the new court funding model
While decisions made at the Supreme Court level through several cases deemed the current financing structure could stand for the time being, the work is no less poignant. The recommendations and supporting materials within the final report contribute to the ever-evolving conversation around the constitutionality of court financing structures and provide necessary groundwork for cases to come.
Michael Bosanac, Monroe County Administrator/Chief Financial Officer