- “San Mateo court agrees to stop collecting debt from unpaid fees in light of lawsuit,” Maria Dinzeo for Courthouse News Service, 5/25/2022
- “San Mateo Courts Pause Late Fees in Response to Suit,” Dave Simpson for Law360, 5/25/2022 (requires paid subscription)
- “Civil Rights, Legal Aid Groups Pause Lawsuit Over $300 Civil Assessments,” The Recorder, 5/26/2022 (requires paid subscription)
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 25, 2022
MEDIA CONTACT: Carmen King, 615-630-9159, firstname.lastname@example.org
California Judicial Council Sued for Illegal Scheme to Fund Courts through Late Fees; San Mateo Court Stops Collecting Millions in Outstanding Debts and Waits for Governor and Legislature to Act.
OAKLAND – Today, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Bay Area Legal Aid, and the law firm of Fenwick & West LLP sued the Judicial Council of California—the highest administrative body for the California courts—for perpetuating an unconstitutional scheme to fund the California courts through massive late fees, known as “civil assessments.” The Judicial Council was sued as part of an ongoing lawsuit against San Mateo Superior Court for its unconstitutional revenue generation practices. Read today’s filing here.
Immediately after our filing, the Judicial Council of California entered an agreement not to fight this lawsuit pending action from the Governor and the Legislature to end civil assessments permanently. Per the agreement, San Mateo Superior Court—which was attempting to collect at least $30 million in civil assessment late fees in more than 100,000 cases—will stop collecting that debt and will stop imposing new late fees while this litigation is pending. Read today’s agreement with the Judicial Council and the Court here.
For years, the Judicial Council directly encouraged trial courts to collect late fees in large numbers— sending incentive payments to trial courts across California as a reward for collecting civil assessments. The complaint filed today provides evidence that the Judicial Council sent million-dollar incentive payments to San Mateo Superior Court as a reward for the Court’s imposition and collection of high numbers of civil assessments. This financial incentive to collect leads to biased decision-making that violates Californians’ due process rights. This illegal revenue scheme is a major source of funding for the California court system—which the state has underfunded since California’s mass incarceration crisis drove the courts into financial crisis in the late 90s. Over the last decade, California courts have generated more than $750 million in revenue by collecting these fees.
Civil assessments disproportionately impact Black and Brown people—who, due to racism and deep biases in policing, are subject to traffic stops and citations at much higher rates than their white peers and are much less likely to be able to pay those citations by the deadline. These low-income Californians are paying a hidden tax to fund the court system because the state has refused to foot the bill.
The Judicial Council of California has itself noted that relying on civil assessment fees to fund courts is “unsustainable and requires further examination and adjustment,” and has expressed gratitude “for the backfills received as the Governor and legislators recognize the direct impact [of …] the current fine and fee structure and move the court system away from this funding source.” In other words, the Judicial Council knows this funding model is broken.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Governor and the Legislature to fund the courts. The Governor of California has projected an unprecedented budgetary surplus of $100 billion for this upcoming fiscal year. California could be providing its courts with adequate funding so that courts need not resort to unlawfully extracting late fees from low-income Californians.
Plaintiffs in this lawsuit include Debt Collective, a nonprofit organization, created to fight unjust debts and help cancel debt for millions of Americans, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, a non- profit organization who offers free legal services to low-income people with outstanding debts, Anthony McCree, a 29-year-old Black man who was hit with a late fee he could not pay while homeless at the time and was threatened with collections while struggling to make rent, and Lorena Gonzales Baes, a 40-year old Hispanic woman who incurred multiple late fees while taking care of her family as a new mother, and is still struggling to clear the debt.
“I have had to choose between paying my bills, paying for childcare, or paying my late fees. Civil assessments hurt families like mine. Not having to pay that debt, even temporarily, is a huge relief,” Lorena Gonzales Baes said.
Manuel Galindo, Carceral Debt Organizer at Debt Collective, issued the following statement, “As an organization fighting to free debtors from the burdens of unjust debt, the Debt Collective celebrates today’s announcement that the San Mateo Superior Court will stop collections on over $30 million dollars of hidden late fees. These civil assessments devastate California’s low-income Black and Brown communities and further the criminalization of poverty. The state should get out of the business of criminalizing poverty. It should never impose or collect these debts again.
Katrina Logan, Interim Director of Programs at Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto, issued the following statement, “We have seen first-hand how these hidden $300 late fees can derail our clients’ financial security. While this temporary relief is worth celebrating, what is truly needed is permanent debt relief. The state should adopt the Senate’s budget plan, which includes permanently ending civil assessments and eliminating the debt associated with them.”
Zal Shroff, Senior Racial Justice Attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the SF Bay Area, issued the following statement: “We are heartened that the Judicial Council clearly recognizes the need for the Legislature and the Governor to end these exorbitant late charges and to finally give the courts the funding they need so they aren’t illegally extracting wealth from Black and Brown communities.”
Brandon Greene, Director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California, issued the following statement: “The $30 million in temporary debt relief we have secured today for thousands of low-income Californians is just the first step in undoing the damage that civil assessments have caused to Black and Brown communities and other justice impacted groups who have been disproportionately burdened by the criminal legal system.”
Fawn Jade Korr, Senior Litigation Counsel at Bay Area Legal Aid, issued the following statement: “Civil assessments exacerbate the financial insecurity of low-income Californians by forcing them to decide between paying court debt or basic necessities. This agreement takes us one step closer to reversing the harm of this regressive and unconstitutional policy statewide.”