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Michigan Legislature OK's trial court funding extension and stalls bill to create new plan

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The Michigan Legislature voted Wednesday to continue allowing local courts to assess costs on defendants who either are convicted or plead guilty.

Without the extension, that authorization is set to expire May 1. A bill now headed for the governor’s desk would extend that to the end of 2026.

Representative Kelly Breen (D-Novi) supported extending the sunset on that funding mechanism. But she said lawmakers need to come up with a permanent fix, so courts no longer rely on fines for funding.

“We need to ensure that there is no, even an appearance of impropriety that judges are making decisions simply to generate court revenue. We can’t have that. And it results in unequal access to justice,” Breen told reporters after Senate session Wednesday.

Breen sponsors a bill that would require the State Court Administrative Office to propose a new, uniform statewide court funding system to the state Legislature by May 2026.

Breen emphasized it would then be up to lawmakers to decide whether to accept those recommendations or have the office try again.

Republicans, however, were skeptical of the plan.

Representative Andrew Fink (R-Hillsdale) said he doesn’t like how the bill relies on the State Court Administrative Office rather than lawmakers to propose a solution.

“That’s an inherently legislative responsibility to appropriate funds. And so, as we think through the best way to do that is, I don’t like the idea of asking SCAO to think through it, develop it, and just hand us its recommendations, which I believe we’ll then be pressured to adopt,” Fink said.

Fink said he’d prefer the Legislature taking the lead on coming up with a new trial court funding plan.

The issue of trial court funding has been a pressing matter for years.

A 2017 state law passed under then-Republican Governor Rick Snyder created a Trial Court Funding Commission to review concerns and come up with recommendations for lawmakers to pass. The commission issued its final report in 2019.

“Those recommendations were handed to the Legislature in 2019 with the hopes that the Legislature, which is the policymaking branch of government would lead, would take them up, and would have this healthy conversation. Now, for a variety of reasons, that just didn’t happen,” State Court Administrator Tom Boyd said.

That report mentions state and federal court cases in which the issue of how having a court rely on fines it imposes to fund itself could constitute a conflict of interest. While the state’s policy was upheld in a 2019 decision, Michigan Supreme Court Justices noted flaws within the system.

Boyd said a possible fix would still allow courts to assess fines and rely on other sources of local funding aside from fees for criminal proceedings. But creating a new Trial Court Fund to handle revenue from those court costs, as required in Breen’s bill, would add an extra layer of protection to avoid the appearance of a court having a motive to charge high fees.

Originally, the two bills were tie-barred, meaning one couldn’t become law if another didn’t. But, in a move to ensure the sunset extension had enough Republican support in the Senate for the bill to take immediate effect, Senate lawmakers broke the tie-bar.

The changes meant the bills went back to the House of Representatives, for that chamber to concur with the Senate’s actions.

The concurrence vote on the sunset extension, which had been sponsored by Republican Rep. Sarah Lightner (R-Springport), passed with wide bipartisan support. But Breen’s bill requiring a new proposal for funding the courts did not receive enough support to continue forward.

House Democrats will likely try again once two new Democratic members are seated next week.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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