Through the long run-up to the Texas Supreme Court on Friday, Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder has argued that he had no choice but to collect court costs and fees averaging $300 from people in divorce cases who were legally indigent.
The Supreme Court made it clear that he not only had a choice, but he chose wrongly.
Anyone who fits the profile of this case but was bullied by Wilder’s threats into paying all or part of what he demanded should be due a refund. Wilder and Tarrant County owe it to them.
Seven people stood up to Wilder. All had filed uncontested affidavits of indigence as part of their divorce cases between 2008 and 2012.
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Even though they were legally exempted — a foundational aspect of equal access to the courts — they received letters from Wilder demanding that they pay immediately or the sheriff would seize their property to satisfy the debt.
Wilder, the district clerk since 1995, started this policy in 2010. When people protested, he responded that he was bound by boilerplate language in divorce decrees saying each party should bear their own costs.
These seven individuals filed suit, and state District Judge David Cleveland issued a temporary injunction in April 2013 ordering Wilder’s policy stopped.
But Wilder appealed, arguing that complainers should go back to the court that issued their divorce decree and ask specifically to be excused from paying. Cleveland was not the divorce judge, and state law in many cases prevents parties to lawsuits from playing off one judge against another.
In 2014, a panel of judges from the 2nd Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in Wilder’s favor, tossing out the injunction and the lawsuit behind it.
The Supreme Court had no problem deciding that both Wilder and the appeals court were wrong.
On Wilder’s assertion that he had no choice but to collect court costs, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote on behalf of the court that “for a party who files an affidavit of inability to pay costs, there are no costs to bill …”
The affidavits are “in lieu of” payments, Hecht wrote. “It is an abuse of discretion for any judge, including a family law judge, to order costs in spite of an uncontested affidavit of indigence.”
On the question of Cleveland’s injunction, Hecht said the issue is whether one court interferes with the processes of another — and Cleveland did not.
The parties were not complaining about their divorce decrees or alleging a miscalculation or mistake by the divorce court, Hecht wrote, “but of a systematic policy that contravenes the law. It would be wasteful to force each individual Petitioner to file a motion to retax costs when a single injunction will do.”