Law forcing the convicted to pay Michigan court costs stays alive

DETROIT (AP) — After hearing two rounds of arguments, the Michigan Supreme Court has declined to upset a law that forces people convicted of crimes to pay a share of everyday operating costs in local courts.

The law, which raises millions of dollars a year for local governments, has been widely criticized. It mostly affects low-income people and doesn’t apply to others who use court services. Many judges find the practice unsavory but say they’re under pressure to bring in cash.

The state Supreme Court on Friday let stand an appeals court decision that found the law constitutional. The two-sentence order was not a formal opinion, though some justices added postscripts.

The law has been extended twice by the Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and now expires in May 2024. Justice Megan Cavanagh said she was in favor of striking it down as unconstitutional but freezing the decision for 18 months, presumably to muscle the Legislature to come up with a different way to fund courts.

Judges determining guilt or innocence and subsequent punishment shouldn’t also be deciding how much a person should pay to keep the lights on in the courthouse, Justice Elizabeth Welch said.

From 2018 through 2020, Michigan courts collected $108 million statewide, 75% of it in district courts, which handle traffic tickets, drunken driving cases and other misdemeanors mostly committed by people who can least afford to pay.

The law has “turned Michigan’s trial courts into self-funding tax assessors and collectors by requiring the courts, and the courts alone, to decide which convicted individuals pay a tax and how much they must pay to help fund the judiciary’s operations,” Welch said.

The Supreme Court heard appeals in two cases, including one from Alpena County in which a man was ordered to pay $1,200 on top of other fines.