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Finding a funding solution for the district courts

By Lisa Brody

What if there wasn’t a court to go to if you had to deal with a traffic ticket or a legal case. In the communities covered by the 48th District Court – Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, West Bloomfield, Sylvan Lake, Orchard Lake and Keego Harbor – it's not a farfetched consideration as the communities bicker over funding for the court and consider opting out of subsidizing it entirely, despite statutory requirements mandating financing the court.

A key provision lacking in the statute is it does not state how to finance the court, leaving it to local municipalities to figure it out themselves.

In Michigan, there is a dual court system, one run by the state; the other, a federal system. Most of the court cases the general public deals with on day-to-day basis is in the state court system, which functions from the district court to the circuit court, and then to the Michigan Appeals Court and the Michigan Supreme Court, which is the final determining spot.

District court is the first stop for most criminal cases, as well as for traffic tickets and misdemeanor cases. They're located in local jurisdictions. In Michigan, there are three different classes of district courts: first class, second class and third class district courts. They all serve the same function.

First class district courts serve the entire county where they are situated, and are paid for by the county. In 77 counties in Michigan, this is the way the community has a district court, Tom Boyd, Michigan State Supreme Court Administrator, and former district court judge in the city of Mason, in Ingham County, explained.

Second class district courts are county-funded courts that do not cover the whole county, such as the 52nd district courts in Oakland County, in Novi and Rochester.

“They only exist in six counties in Michigan – Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, Ingham and Kent counties,” Boyd said.

Then there are third class district courts which cover specific local jurisdictions within a county and are funded by the local communities they cover. Oakland County's 48th District Court is a local example.

Boyd said that one of the reforms in the 1963 Michigan Constitution was the elimination of the justice of the peace system because it had become subject to corruption.

“They became paid for their signatures,” Boyd said.

The 1963 state Constitution directed the state legislature to create within five years a new system of limited jurisdiction courts, which in 1967-1968 became the district courts.

“The legislature in 1967 thought district courts were county entities,” Boyd said.

However, Wayne County, which he said had enormous clout at the time, with both a huge population as well as politicians with statewide influence, said, “no way,” as did Oakland County.

“Wayne County said if we can't have county courts, we'll have city courts,” Boyd said. “Wayne County is the only county in the state that has no second class courts – meaning no county courts at the district level.”

There is the 36th District Court, just for the city of Detroit, funded by the city of Detroit, within Wayne County, but it is a third class district court. It is the only court in the state that is just for one municipality. The rest of the county is served by hybrid third class district courts.

“There used to be 12 to 13 counties with second class district courts, but now there are only six,” Boyd said. “Genesee and Kalamazoo counties were the last two to convert (to first class courts). More have consolidated back to first class countywide courts. It's definitely the trend.”

“Michigan's system for funding its courts is byzantine,” pointed out Diane Hartmus, JD, associate professor for political science, Oakland University. “There are more than 165 methods in Michigan of funding courts. There have been challenges at the state level (to funding).”

Justin Long, associate professor, Wayne State University Law School, concurred. “It's a very strange funding system – not to say it's uncommon. They're state courts that perform a state function, but they're not funded by the state, which immediately creates a conflict because anytime you have a gap between a role or function of an institution and it's funding, it opens up a door for problems because it can create a conflict in who is funding and how.

“The state has its own priority of maintaining courts for its own purposes, such as regulating disputes between private parties, to enforce criminal laws passed by the state legislature, and to provide a forum for people with claims against their own government,” Long said. “Whereas the county and other local governments have their own priorities, like roads and sewers, that have nothing to do with courts. So for those funding units, it's always going to be a conflict between the state's goals, which are carried out through the courts, and the counties and local governments, which actually pay for it.”

Long said the mandate upon counties and local governments to fund the district and circuit courts is not the same thing as an unfunded mandate, “but it has the same political impact. Who bears the brunt of it is the people who need the courts to protect their rights.”

Boyd explained that every Michigan Constitution going back to 1835 mandates that penal fines go to libraries. It is largely how libraries in the state were funded. Yet, at some point in the World War II era, he said, some were determined to not be penal fines but local ordinances.

“Police could get money back because it's not a penal fine,” Boyd said. “District courts were designed to fix that, and they just haven't. Therefore, if it's a fine from a state law, it goes to the libraries. Otherwise, it stays local.”

In 1983, libraries in Saginaw sued the district courts in Saginaw County, asking where their money was, alleging the courts had created a work around. The courts lost. “It took 30 more years for a case to get to the Michigan Supreme Court in People v Cunningham, to say, 'what are you talking about? What are the costs?' The legislative response in 2017 was to create the authority for courts to charge for court costs.”

Local district courts handle all misdemeanors, traffic tickets, pretrial criminal actions and arraignments. “It's the first stop in the criminal court process,” Hartmus explained.

Circuit courts are the trial courts with the broadest power in Michigan. In general, the circuit court handles all civil cases with claims of more than $25,000 and all felony criminal cases, and where the accused, if found guilty, are sent to prison.

“We're not unique,” Hartmus noted. “Other states have crazy funding systems, but some states have simple funding methods. Michigan has a system where a lot of the money comes from traffic tickets. The assumption a lot of us have is that when there are funding shortfalls, the police need to go out and write more tickets.”

West Bloomfield Supervisor Steve Kaplan disavows that assumption, noting that it costs the township and police department to send officers to the court when a member of the public fights a ticket.

“It's illegal anyway,” Kaplan, a former prosecutor, said. “It's a violation of state law to have quotas.”

Boyd concurred, noting it is against all collective bargaining agreements.

Kaplan also said West Bloomfield loses money for every ticket it writes.

“It often gets marked down to a non-moving violation with no points if the person has a good record. The court will impose fines and costs of $200. What happens to the $200 – the money is disbursed to the state, the library fund, the county. West Bloomfield will get about $40 of that,” he said.

“We as a municipality have to send police officers to court, pay time-and-a-half with a two-hour minimum to that officer, and then it's one fewer officer on the road if it's on his shift.”

Hartmus said Michigan has a complex statute on how district courts are funded, going back to the 1963 Constitution, with the Michigan legislature then creating the three different classes of district courts. Subsequent legislation determined funding models, but not requirements for how to fund certain courts, including in Oakland County, the 48th District Court, which just required the seven local communities to fund it – but did not establish a specific system.

According to a 1988 document by Citizens Research Council, “Adoption of the 1963 Michigan Constitution mandated certain changes in the structure of the state judiciary. Specifically, Article VI, Section 26, of the 1963 Constitution required that the offices of circuit court commissioner and justice of the peace be abolished and a court or courts of limited jurisdiction be created by the Legislature before January 1, 1969. Prior to the 1963 Constitution, justices of the peace were elected township government officials with limited jurisdiction in both criminal and civil matters. Cities in Michigan maintained “municipal” or “police” courts which superseded the jurisdiction of the justice of the peace. In 1968, the Legislature implemented the 1963 constitutional mandate by creating a district court system in Michigan (P. A. 154 of 1968)… P. A. 154 of 1968 originally created a total of 99 district courts. Thirteen of these districts included an additional 16 election divisions, thereby potentially creating 115 autonomous district court units. The legislation abolished municipal courts and police courts; however, the governing body (or bodies) of any newly created third-class district could retain its municipal or police court by adopting a resolution within seven days after the effective date of the 1968 act. Several jurisdictions opted to retain their municipal courts rather than allow a new district court to be created… Of the 99 district courts originally created by the Legislature in 1968, 53 were to be funded by county governments.”

In Oakland County, the 52nd district court covered the county, exclusive of the cities of Madison Heights, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Royal Oak, Berkley, Huntington Woods, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge, Southfield, Lathrup Village, Farmington, Sylvan Lake, Keego Harbor, Orchard Lake Village, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Troy, Clawson, and Pontiac and Royal Oak, Southfield, Farmington, West Bloomfield, Bloomfield, and Waterford Townships, meaning those municipalities had to create local district courts and fund them.

The Citizens Research Council noted: “In every Michigan county except Oakland that operates a county-funded district court, the jurisdiction of the county-funded court is either countywide or includes only the rural townships and small cities within the county. In Oakland County, there are municipalities included in the county-funded court while other municipalities in the county are required to finance their own district courts.

“The current district court arrangement in Oakland County creates an inequitable situation because the 52nd District Court (county-funded court) is not a self-supporting enterprise. The county general fund is required to subsidize the operations of the court. As a result, taxpayers in the third-class (locally funded) district courts, in effect, are required to pay for the operation of two district courts. Their local tax dollars are used to finance the operation of the local district court and their county tax dollars are used to finance the operation of the county-funded district court. Taxpayers in the second-class district court, however, only pay for court services once. Their county taxes are used to finance the second-class district court.”

Boyd noted that “court funding is a patchwork quilt that puts judges in a bind because in a lot of places they're responsible for court funding, and that can cause at least the appearance of conflicts of interest. The judicial branch's currency is trust and public confidence, so it's important that people don't think we're just out for their money.”

In 2019, the state judiciary studied the funding issue after the legislature created the Trial Court Funding Commission in 2017, to review Michigan's trial court funding system, putting out “Trial Court Funding Commission Final Report,” of which Boyd was the chair.

“The commission has unanimously concluded that the existing system is broken, and it is imperative to create a stable and consistent funding source for Michigan trial courts that removes trial court judges from the role of raising money for the operation of the courts,” the report's summary states.

Among its key recommendations are to address the problems of: A real or perceived conflict of interest between a judge's impartiality and the obligation to use the courts to generate revenue; inadequate funding from all sources due to excessive dependence on local government funding; and unequal access to justice harming those who are most vulnerable and have the least access to financial resources.

The report notes the current system is dependent upon court assessments (fees, fines and costs) to generate substantial revenues to fund about one-third of court operations. The balance comes primarily from local operating funds.

“While a significant portion of the court assessments are sent to the state government, very little is ultimately appropriated from the state's general fund to actually fund the trial system. Tens of millions of dollars are transferred to other state functions that do not directly support courts,” the report states, while pointing out, “Local government units are the largest source of funding for trial courts.”

The recommendation from the report is that “the state must access responsibility and act to ensure adequate funding for trial courts with local government continuing to play a role in providing funding and support of the judiciary. A rebalanced state/local partnership is necessary to meet the fundamental duty that everyone has equal access to justice.”

This general recalibration is playing out on the local court level, as the municipalities which have historically funded the 48th District Court – are undergoing a re-examination of their long-term funding agreement, and it is even causing neighboring communities to turn on one another.

According to a 1985 funding unit agreement for the court, Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills and West Bloomfield were the four municipalities funding the court, meaning they provided annual funding for court operations and maintenance in response to budget requests from the court based upon the percentage of their community's use of the court, in return for a two-thirds return of their receipts, while Sylvan Lake, Orchard Lake and Keego Harbor, considered too small to finance the court, submitted their tickets and court cases, and in return, received one-third of their revenue.

A disagreement about who should fund the court appears to have begun with funding balance shortfalls from the court during the Covid-19 pandemic. As with many businesses – and make no mistake, the court is a business – during the pandemic, the court was shut down for lengthy periods of time, staffers were laid off or worked remotely, court cases were postponed due to shutdowns, delaying fines and court costs, less police tickets were written – meaning there was a severe decline in revenues, and a sharp decrease in receipts returned to the funding communities. Yet the court still had to be funded.

In 2020 and 2021, former Bloomfield Hills Mayor Sarah McClure noted Bloomfield Hills was suddenly paying significantly more to the court than they had ever before, and felt it was disproportionate to the size of their municipality and the percentage of cases they were sending to the court.

“We had a $182,000 loss in 2020, and $144,000 loss in 2021,” to the 48th District Court, said Bloomfield Hills City Manager David Hendrickson. “Our overall annual budget is only about $11 million. The city commission wanted to make sure that however the court was funded, it was appropriate, and felt it should be examined.”

Hendrickson said they would typically have a nine to 10 percent caseload at 48th District Court.

“But in 2020, it went up to 15 percent, not because our caseload dropped, but because Birmingham's dropped 59 percent in 2020, Bloomfield Township's dropped 48 percent, and West Bloomfield dropped