The Texas Supreme Court on Friday reversed a ruling by the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth that would have let Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder continue collecting fees from indigent parties to divorce cases.
State District Judge David Cleveland issued a temporary injunction in April 2013 that barred Wilder from requiring indigent residents to pay court fees, a practice he began in November 2010.
Before a trial could be held on a permanent injunction, however, the 2nd Court of Appeals tossed out Cleveland’s ruling and dismissed the lawsuit, filed on behalf of seven indigent Tarrant residents who were billed an average of $300 for costs related to divorce proceedings.
In a 2-1 opinion, the court said Cleveland did not have the authority to issue a ruling because the fees had to be challenged in the courts that handled the divorces.
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The seven indigent residents were assessed fees after their divorces were granted from 2008 to 2012, including a woman with an abusive husband, a single mother who could not work as she recovered from cancer and a woman on food stamps whose ex-husband was imprisoned for sexually assaulting her daughter.
They were among several hundred indigent litigants who received letters demanding immediate payment and threatening to seize their property if they failed to comply, court documents said.
Attorney Lee DiFilippo, who represents the seven petitioners, called the Supreme Court ruling, which also sent the case back to the trial court for further action, “wonderful.”
Tom Stutz, director of litigation for Legal Aid of North Texas, said the Supreme Court has set an example for the rest of the country on making access to the courts for low-income people an important priority.
“This case will go to the trial court, but it is a pretty definite statement to Mr. Wilder that it is an improper, unlawful policy,” he said.
Chris Ponder, a Tarrant County assistant district attorney representing Wilder, could not be reached for comment Friday. But Wilder said he was acting on language found in divorce decrees that says each party shall bear his or her costs.
“I’m disappointed that the Supreme Court chose to overrule the 2nd Court of Appeals decision,” he said. “It will go back to the trial court, and we will figure out the full ramifications.”
Wilder said that the program of collecting fees from indigent litigants was done on the advice of the civil division of the district attorney’s office and that he had uncovered “scams” showing that some who filed indigency affidavits in fact had the money to pay the court costs.
Former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson helped represent the Tarrant County residents before the Supreme Court.
Jefferson argued that the practice of collecting the fees from indigent litigants should be stopped because it threatened a “basic tenet of justice,” which is access to the courts by the poor.
In Friday’s opinion, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote that an injunction must be broad enough to “prevent repetition of the evil sought to be stopped here, the District Clerk’s ‘policy, practice, and procedure’ of seeking costs against indigent litigants, as found by the district court. When a policy or procedure is challenged as being in conflict with state law, any injunction that issues will necessarily affect individuals beyond the named parties.”
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.