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State Supreme Court will hear challenge to court cost assessments

Michigan Supreme Court
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The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases on the question of whether making convicted defendants pay court costs is unconstitutional.

The controversy centers on a long-standing practice that allows judges in Michigan to assess court costs on defendants who are found guilty. The money helps fund local courts, but judges don’t see any direct benefit.

These two lawsuits, from Wayne and Alpena counties, challenge that system. The challenges claim that allowing judges to assess court costs creates an automatic incentive to find defendants guilty. That’s because courts don’t get to assess costs when a defendant is found innocent.

The lawsuits also claim that assessing court costs on top of other penalties has a disproportionate effect on lower-income defendants. And that it’s up to the Legislature, not the judiciary, to appropriate money to fund courts.

Two panels of the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the challenges.

The Supreme Court held separate arguments in April on whether the case is worth its attention. The decision to accept the case also invited more thorough briefings from the parties, and the court has asked for amicus briefs from organizations representing prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges as well as from the Legislature.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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