Michigan Supreme Court to weigh constitutionality of law that forces low-income defendants to pay court bills

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The Michigan Supreme Court will take up a law that allows judges to charge defendants to cover the costs of operating the courts. - SHUTTERSTOCK
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  • The Michigan Supreme Court will take up a law that allows judges to charge defendants to cover the costs of operating the courts.

The Michigan Supreme Court will reexamine a controversial state law that allows judges to force low-income criminal defendants to cover the costs of operating the courts.

The case involves Travis Johnson, who was ordered to pay $1,200 for a pair of convictions in 2017.



Opponents of the law argue it’s unconstitutional and creates a conflict of interest for judges who can ease budget pressures with a conviction. The costs also disproportionately fall on people who can least afford it.

A central focus of the case is whether the law “deprives criminal defendants of their right to appear before an impartial judge,” The Associated Press first reported.



Between 2016 and 2019, the law allowed courts to amass $172 million to pay for salaries, utilities, and other services. Nearly three-quarters of the costs were generated in district courts, which handle relatively minor cases like traffic tickets and drunk drivings.

The Supreme Court first took up the case in 2019, when opponents of the law made a different argument – that the court costs amounted to an illegal tax. The justices sided with an appeals court that upheld the law.

At the time, Chief Justice Bridget McCormack said the court could rule differently if the law is challenged on other constitutional grounds.

“Assigning judges to play tax collector erodes confidence in the judiciary and may seriously jeopardize a defendant’s right to a neutral and detached magistrate,” McCormack said in a statement joined by Justice Richard Bernstein.

Since then, two more Democrats have been added to the court.

Gov. Whitmer and state lawmakers extended the law until October 2022, but the Democratic governor, who is an attorney, asked the Legislature to develop a new system that “does not come at the cost of judicial independence and individual rights.”

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