In a ruling described as a blow to poor Texans, an appeals court says a trial court lacked jurisdiction when Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder was ordered to stop collecting court fees from people who can’t afford an attorney.
The ruling by the 2nd Court of Appeals, issued last week, reverses a lower court ruling that ordered Wilder to stop collecting court costs from poor litigants although they had filed uncontested indigency affidavits.
In its 2-1 ruling, the appeals court said the judgments should have come from the family courts where the divorces were handled.
Justice Lee Gabriel, who wrote the majority opinion, said the case was dismissed and the original judgment was vacated, but also emphasized that “courts are to be open to all including those who cannot afford the costs of admission.”
“Indeed, courts should tread lightly in this arena and carefully interpret the rules and statutes regarding indigency status and the award of costs,” Gabriel wrote.
Even with that warning, advocates for the poor called the ruling a setback, citing the difficulties of their clients to access the justice system.
Lee Di Filippo, an Austin attorney who represented three of the seven Tarrant County residents who sued Wilder, said she will appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.
“The district clerk’s collection system creates additional barriers to justice in a system that is already unaffordable to the poor and the middle class,” Di Filippo said.
“He is threatening access to justice because if indigent people in Tarrant County believe they will be charged court fees they can’t afford, they won’t seek help from the justice system,” she said.
Shelby Jean, an attorney and communications director for Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, which represented four Tarrant County residents who also sued Wilder, said the organization is also considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court, which would be coordinated with Di Filippo’s appeal.
Thomas Stutz, director of litigation for Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, said that it is important to note that the appeals court decision doesn’t address Wilder’s collection policies.
“The district clerk’s efforts to collect fees from the poor is neither proper nor permitted by law,” he said.
Just following orders
Last year, Legal Aid of Northwest Texas and the Texas Advocacy Project filed two suits against Wilder after several residents received collection notices threatening to have sheriff’s deputies or constables come and collect their property if court costs were not paid in 10 days.
The residents had affidavits of indigency, and they understood that they were not subject to the court fees, although boilerplate language in some divorce forms said the husband or wife will be responsible.
The letters were sent long after the divorce decrees were final and could not be appealed. Wilder said he was simply following the orders from the final divorce decrees, but the residents said they were threatened and intimidated.
Wilder said, “This was simply about the district clerk following the court’s order rather than creating any barrier to justice.”
Chris Ponder, an assistant Tarrant County district attorney who represented Wilder, said he is pleased that the appeals court sided with Wilder’s position of using language from divorce decrees to collect the court fees.
“The court recognized the difficult position that our district clerk was in” by having a judgment that told him to do one thing and being told later that was the wrong thing to do, Ponder said.
Protecting the weak
Justice Anne Gardner disagreed with her colleagues and wrote a dissenting opinion, which said that the court has jurisdiction and that all the litigants had uncontested indigency affidavits.
Gardner also wrote that only 20 percent of the 6 million Texans who qualify for legal aid and pro bono services are able to get help and that funding for legal aid programs has been severely reduced.
Gardner said the rule that exempts indigent people from paying court costs was put in place to “protect the weak from the strong” and to ensure that no one is denied his or her right to access the justice system.