Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor issued stern guidance to hundreds of judges across the state: “courts are centers of justice, not automatic teller machines whose purpose is to generate revenue for governments, including themselves.”
O’Connor fired off the two-page letter this week after the U.S. Department of Justice recently rescinded its March 2016 guidance to state court leaders regarding fine, fee and bail practices. Even without the directive from the federal authorities, state courts have an obligation to uphold and protect constitutional standards, said O’Connor, a Republican who has been on the bench since 2003.
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O’Connor leads a national task force examining fine, fee and bail practices, studying ways that state courts better align those practices with constitutional standards.
In her letter issued Jan. 29, she warned judges to be on guard against the pressure to generate fees and fines as a method of funding the courts.
“I know the pressure that many of you face to generate revenue, to increase collection rates, to ‘self-fund’ as if the courts are a business trading in a commodity,” O’Connor wrote. “But court cases are not business transactions. We do not buy and sell a commodity; we perform a public service.”
O’Connor issued “bench cards” with legal guidelines for fine and cost collection in juvenile and adult court. And the supreme court’s Judicial College now offers an online course on the topic.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio applauded the move.
“ The Department of Justice guidance simply reinforced what the U.S. Constitution already says—that no one can be jailed simply because they cannot afford to pay their financial obligations. Chief Justice O’Connor has been a national leader on this issue, and her work to help end debtors’ prison practices in Ohio is invaluable,” said ACLU of Ohio senior policy director Mike Brickner.