Poor shouldn’t pay, but clerk mustn’t decide

Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder
Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder Star-Telegram

District Clerk Tom Wilder should not win the case his attorney argued before the Texas Supreme Court this week, asking the court to uphold his policy of attempting to collect hundreds of dollars in fees from indigent parties in divorce cases.

Unfortunately, Wilder has to win. If the state’s top civil court does not rule in his favor, paradoxically it would be giving him carte blanche to interpret for himself the orders of Tarrant County judges.

Nobody wants that. Wilder, like any district clerk, should be tightly wrapped in rules about how he does his job of managing the business operations of 27 Tarrant County courts hearing civil, family and felony criminal cases.

The case at the Supreme Court on Wednesday has been winding its way through the courts for years.

In November 2010, court documents say, Wilder began attempting to collect fees averaging $300 from people who had filed papers, all uncontested or not denied, declaring themselves unable to pay. Wilder himself notes that he “has never argued” whether the people involved are indigent.

That’s crucial, because Texas courts say everyone should have access to the judicial system, and no one should be blocked because they are unable to pay court costs.

When Wilder attempted to collect those fees, attorneys and the Texas Access to Justice Commission brought suit on behalf of seven indigent people involved in divorce actions between 2009 and 2012.

One woman divorced her abusive husband, another her incarcerated husband who had abused one of their daughters. All received public assistance. Some had filed their divorce papers without attorneys.

But Wilder says each of their divorce decrees specified that the parties involved should bear their court costs. Not all divorce decrees include that language, he says.

He says it’s not up to him to decide whether the divorce decree or the so-called “pauper petitions” should prevail, that the individuals should go back to their divorce courts and get it straightened out.

Attorneys fighting Wilder say poor people shouldn’t have to do that, and they’re right. But district clerks shouldn’t be contradicting the written orders of judges.