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Federal Court Rules State Judges Cannot Profit From Fines and Fees.

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 If the court that hears a case could profit from the fines imposed upon and paid by defendants, that’s a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Constitution.

The rulings have capable implications for similar conflicts of interest in the criminal criminal justice system.

In two rulings recently issued the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that criminal court judges in New Orleans, Louisiana have an unconstitutional conflict of interest, because the money collected from fees and fines imposed on defendants goes to subsidize their courts’ operations.

Nick Sibilla of the Institute for Justice summarizes  the two cases in an article for Forbes:

Despite Congress abolishing debtors’ prisons in 1833, and the U.S. Supreme Court declaring them unconstitutional 150 years later, today, thousands of Americans are locked up for failing to pay their debts to the state. But in a one-two punch against modern-day debtor’s prisons, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued two unanimous decisions that declared that criminal court judges in New Orleans have an unconstitutional conflict of interest in collecting fines and fees. 

Due to their “institutional interest” in generating court revenue (a “substantial portion” of their budget), the judges of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court “failed to provide a neutral forum,” which in turn violated the constitutional right to due process.


The first case, Cain v. White, centered around half a dozen criminal defendants who pled guilty and subsequently faced fines and fees ranging from $148 to $901.50. When they couldn’t pay up, OPCDC authorized warrants for their arrest, threw them in jail, and set their bond at $20,000….


Distressingly, some of the fines and fees were deposited into a “Judicial Expense Fund,” which the Orleans Parish judges have “exclusive authority” over. One quarter of the Fund’s revenue—around $1 million—comes directly from the fines and fees the court collects.


Though judges can’t use the Fund to pad their own salaries, they can use it to pay the salaries and benefits of court personnel, as well as a wide array of miscellaneous expenses, including conferences, coffee, drug testing, and pest control.

In a similar vein, the second decision, Caliste v. Cantrell, involved a Louisiana law that sent 1.8% of a commercial bail bond’s value towards the same Fund.


As the Fifth Circuit noted, “The bond fees are a major funding source for the Judicial Expense Fund, contributing between 20–25% of the amount spent in recent years.”

Judge Gregg Costa’s opinion in Caliste summarizes the legal issue involved:

“No man can be judge in his own case.” Edward Coke, INSTITUTES OF THE LAWS OF ENGLAND, § 212, 141 (1628). That centuries-old maxim comes from Lord Coke’s ruling that a judge could not be paid with the fines he imposed. Dr. Bonham’s Case, 8 Co. Rep. 107a, 118a, 77 Eng. Rep. 638, 652 (C.P. 1610). Almost a century ago, the Supreme Court recognized that principle as part of the due process requirement of an impartial tribunal. Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510, 523 (1927).


This case does not involve a judge who receives money based on the decisions he makes. But the magistrate in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court receives something almost as important: funding for various judicial expenses, most notably money to help pay for court reporters, judicial secretaries, and law clerks. What does this court funding depend on? The bail decisions the magistrate makes that determine whether a defendant obtains pretrial release. When a defendant has to buy a commercial surety bond, a portion of the bond’s value goes to a fund for judges’ expenses. So the more often the magistrate requires a secured money bond as a condition of release, the more money the court has to cover expenses. And the magistrate is a member of the committee that allocates those funds….


“Every procedure which would offer a possible temptation to the average man as a judge to forget the burden of proof required to convict the defendant… denies the latter due process of law.” [Tumey, 273 U.S.] at 532…..


Judge Cantrell has a direct and personal interest in the fiscal health of the public institution that benefits from the fees his court generates and that he also helps allocate….


His dual role—the sole source of essential court funds and an appropriator of them—creates a direct, personal, and substantial interest in the outcome of decisions that would make the average judge vulnerable to the “temptation . . . not to hold the balance nice, clear, and true.” Tumey, 273 U.S. at 532. The current arrangement pushes beyond what due process allows.

Read the Rest Here at Reason and Forbes

The post Federal Court Rules State Judges Cannot Profit From Fines and Fees. appeared first on Komorn Law.

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