Oklahoma Court Filing Fees Challenged as Unconstitutional

October 13, 2009

When Oklahomans file lawsuits, they also help fund a variety of state services by paying civil filing fees the Legislature has authorized state courts to collect from litigants over the years to support such activities as adoption registries, child abuse investigations and domestic abuse shelters.

But that fee-based funding structure is coming under fire in a lawsuit filed by Oklahoma City attorney Jerry Fent that alleges they are unconstitutional and should be struck down. Among other things, Fent claims the fees, which can total hundreds of dollars, interfere with a citizen’s constitutional right to unrestricted access to the state’s courts.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court accepted original jurisdiction of Fent’s lawsuit following oral arguments in the case last week and will decide the issue. The court has not said when it will hand down a ruling, but officials at agencies that benefit from the fees are expressing concern that they could be eliminated.

“It’s a lean, lean time right now and losing these fees could really be problematic,” said Charlie Price, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office. Courts collect a $3 civil filing fee for the attorney general’s victim services unit that helps pay for services provided by domestic violence shelters across the state.

Elimination of the fee, which raises about $1 million a year, would have a serious financial impact on agencies that operate the shelters, said Josh Beasley, a spokesman for the YWCA in Oklahoma City. The agency operates a shelter that each year houses as many as 500 women and children who are the victims of domestic violence.

“It’s not something that will cause us to be shut down,” Beasley said. But it would affect the agency’s ability to provide services to women and children, he said.

The court fee, authorized by lawmakers in 2007, was the first funding increase for domestic violence services in 12 years, Beasley said.

Price said the Attorney General’s Office is struggling to cope with budget reductions caused by the collapse of the economy and declining tax revenue and does not have enough money in its budget to replace revenue raised by the fee.

“If lost, it’s just that much money that wouldn’t make it to the shelters,” Price said.

The Department of Human Services receives about $3.2 million in civil filing fees that it distributes to about 35 child advocacy, family resource and law enforcement agencies who investigate child abuse and neglect cases, said Lauri Monetti, a communications manager for DHS.

Like the attorney general’s office, Monetti said her agency could not afford to replenish the funds if the fees were ruled unconstitutional.

“With the way the budget cuts are, there’s just no way,” Monetti said. “I’m sure it would affect their programs.”

The number and cost of court fees that litigants must pay when they file lawsuits has increased since voters approved a statewide initiative almost 20 years ago that made it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes to pay for state services, according to lawmakers.

State Question 640 is a constitutional amendment passed by voters in the early 1990s that requires agreement by three-quarters of the House and Senate to increase taxes.

“I have seen over the years this tacking on of every kind of fee,” said Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, an attorney who is familiar with civil filing fees as well as criminal fines and fees.

“It’s a backdoor tax increase,” Morrissette said. “It’s simply a backdoor way to avoid paying for this stuff through the general fund. They call it a fee instead of a tax. That’s not right.”

Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, said voters who passed the state question did not intend for the Legislature to constantly raise court fees to pay for state services in lieu of taxes.

“I don’t like any fees. But these fees, not only are they bad, I think they’re unconstitutional,” Reynolds said. “Some legislators decided we’ll call it a fee instead. It’s very bad and contrary to what the citizens want.”

Morrissette said the fee structure in criminal cases is equally troubling. He said fees assessed defendants in simple misdemeanor cases can rise as high as $1,000.

“I agree that people who commit crimes need to pay the price,” he said. “But at what point is a fee a fine? That’s an open-ended question.”

In his lawsuit, Fent challenged civil filing fees of $20 for adoption registries that goes to the Department of Human Services, $10 for child abuse investigations for DHS and the $3 fee that goes to the attorney general’s victim services unit.

But Supreme Court justices indicated their ruling will likely be applied to as many as 30 civil filing fees collected by the state’s courts to help pay for services provided by state agencies.

Fent said he does not object to the services the fees pay for, only the way the money is raised.

“They should be funded constitutionally and not a non-constitutional transfer from the courts,” he said. “If the Legislature wants to fund them, they should fund them constitutionally.”

But eliminating the court fee structure for state agencies “would have some very serious ramifications” for the Legislature and taxpayers, Morrissette said.

“At that point the Legislature has to make some very serious policy decisions,” Morrissette said.

Reynolds said lawmakers would be forced to decide whether services and programs that state agencies now offer through court fees are worthy of funding with scarce state tax revenue.

“If they thought these program were valid programs, they’d have to fund them like everything else,” Reynolds said. “The question is not is there enough money, it’s is it a high enough priority.”

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