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Oklahoma Supreme Court Strikes Down Court Fees

Thursday, January 21, 2010

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Supreme Court Tuesday struck down three civil court filing fees state residents pay when they file lawsuits, ruling the fees are unconstitutional because they support non-court related activities.

In a 6-2 decision, the state's highest court ruled the fees helped pay for social welfare programs operated by the government's executive branch and that it was improper for the Legislature to require court clerks to collect them.

"The courts may not be a tax collector for the executive branch of government," the 21-page decision states.

The ruling is a victory for Oklahoma City attorney Jerry Fent, who challenged the fees' legality in a lawsuit alleging they amounted to an illegal tax on litigants and violated the open access to the courts and due process provisions of the state Constitution.

"I'm very satisfied, happy with the opinion," Fent said.

Aside from striking down the three fees, the ruling jeopardizes other civil court filing fees he did not challenge that also fund non-court related activities, Fent said.

The high court said the ruling will go into effect and the fees will no longer be collected once the time for seeking a rehearing has passed.

Fent challenged a $20 fee collected in adoption cases that supported voluntary adoption registries and a $10 fee that was deposited with a child abuse multidisciplinary account. A third $3 fee supported the Attorney General's Office's Victim Services Unit.

Fent said he had no problem with the programs the fees helped support but that the Legislature must find another way to pay for them.

"If those DHS subjects were that valid, then they need to fund it constitutionally," Fent said. "It appears the Legislature is going to have to fund these out of the general fund. And that could be a problem."

Last month, state officials certified a revenue estimate for next year that is $1.3 billion less than the current state budget and declared a revenue shortfall of more than $729 million due to the sluggish economy and low energy prices.

In a statement, Attorney General Drew Edmondson said funds generated by the court fee that goes to his office's Victim Services Unit are used statewide to provide services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

"These funds undoubtedly help overworked and understaffed shelters save lives," Edmondson said.

Edmondson said the shelters will be able to keep the money they already have collected.

"However, this will be small consolation when these already struggling organizations lose roughly $1 million in annual funding," he said. "This is on top of the state-imposed budget cuts that have already impacted their ability to serve Oklahomans in need."

In a three-page dissent, Justices Jim Winchester of Chickasha and John Reif of Skiatook said they would not have allowed the Supreme Court to assume original jurisdiction in the case.

Instead, they said the case should have been first litigated in district court where the affected agencies could present evidence on whether the fees are court-related, the justices said.


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