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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Texas Indigents Freed from Paying Court Costs in Their Divorces

Poor people should not be oppressed by costs imposed by courts. The federal Justice Department thinks so. As to attorneys' fees for services rendered to paupers, San Antonio's Fourth Court of Appeals agrees. The estimable Jani Maselli Woods believes so. E.g. Peraza v. State, 457 S.W.3d 134, (Tex. App.-- Houston [1st Dist.], Dec. 4, 2014)  reversed at 467 S.W.3d 508, (July 01, 2015).
The Texas Supreme Court joins them as to filing fees for civil suits filed with uncontested pauper's oaths. The case is Campbell v. Wilder, No. 14–0379, 2016 WL 1267876 (Tex., Apr. 1, 2016) (Hecht, C.J.) (slip op.) (Lehrmann, J. not sitting).
Seven people-- Campbell along with six others--  who got divorced for free by filing uncontested affidavits of indigency, also known as pauper's oaths, under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 145 got cost bills from Tarrant County District Clerk Thomas A. Wilder. Those bills were in amounts around $300 and threatened that if they were not paid, the sheriff would take property in lieu of the money.
The Texas Advocacy Project objected as to some of the plaintiffs. Wilder said he was bound by the decrees saying that each party had to pay their own costs and that the unhappy indigents should return to court and have the cost charges altered.
Plaintiffs sued in Tarrant County's 17th Judicial District Court, which had made none of the divorce decrees for injunctive relief, inter alia.  After a hearing, it found that the
District Clerk:

" . . . has a policy, practice, and procedure that his office will seek to collect costs against
parties who have filed an affidavit on [sic] indigency under Tex. R. Civ. P. 145 where the
affidavit was not contested, where the contest was denied, or where the contest was
withdrawn based on judgments or final orders in which there was no specific finding
expressly stated in the judgment or final order that the indigent party’s action resulted
in a monetary award, and no specific finding expressly stated in the judgment or final

order that there was sufficient monetary award to reimburse costs[.]"


The Second Court of Appeals, the one in Fort Worth, poured the plaintiffs out for lack of jurisdiction in a divided opinion. The Austin Supremes took it up and some prominent appellate lawyers joined the team for the plaintiffs, e.g. former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.

The Texas Supremes overruled Evans v. Pringle, 643 S.W.2d 116 (Tex. 1982) (per curiam), holding that the 17th District Court's injunction affecting other trial courts' judgments was allowable.

They also quoted the Tex. R. Civ. P. 145 that the affidavit of indigency was in lieu of costs. That is, once the time for challenging the affidavit of indigency passed-- there were not any costs for that party in the case, and that family courts were freer to assign costs than other civil courts were, made no basis for indigents to incur court costs.
 
Thoughts on this case:

As to indigents lacking liability to pay court fees, this decision appears to comport with the plain language of Rule 145. For a prince of the GOP to ignore the letter of the law to take the property of poor people named Odell, Shaunta, and Tairhonda sickens people with sensitivity, who are also known as swing voters.

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