Florida Imposes Tax on Justice
July 31, 2008
Rebekah Diller from the Brennan Center notes Florida’s new court charges in a USA Today op-ed:
Consider Florida’s new court fees, which went in effect July 1. Faced with a budget crisis, Florida has raised its filing fees to among the highest in the country: $300 for most civil cases, $397.50 for divorce and $270 for eviction actions. Florida does not, as do other states, waive civil filing fees for indigent litigants. Instead, court clerks negotiate payment plans with those unable to pay up front – and add a surcharge for paying over time.
Florida is also putting the squeeze on criminal defendants, most of whom are indigent. Those who cannot afford their own lawyer must pay $50 to apply for a constitutionally mandated public defender. If convicted, they face assessments for the costs of prosecution and defense regardless of their ability to pay. These charges are added to other assessments.[…]
Perhaps the worst feature of Florida’s court fees is the fact that only 61% of the new fee collections will go toward funding courts, prosecutors and public defenders, according to a recent news report. The rest will go to the state’s general revenue fund.
When determining whether something is a tax or a fee, the primary consideration is the purpose of the revenue. Fee revenue is used to recoup the cost of providing a service to a group of users (such as getting a divorce or an eviction notice, or driving a toll road, or using a sewer system). The purpose of fees is not to raise revenue, but to fund a service. If they raise general revenues, it has to be a small incidental amount, subordinate to the greater function of regulating or providing a service.
Taxes, by contrast, are all about raising revenue. If the revenue is spent on broadly available public benefits, and it is not an incidental amount, it’s a tax. And that’s the case no matter what politicians call it. See our Heatherly v. North Carolina brief for more information.
Here, according to Diller, 39% of the new assessments on justice-related activities are non-incidental amounts of revenue going to the state’s general fund. These are taxes. Hefty taxes. Taxes on justice.
Back in April, the Louisiana Supreme Court called a $5 judicial charge imposed on speeders a tax, because the assessment had no logical connection to the administration of justice. Because courts cannot impose taxes in Louisiana, the charge was struck down. I wonder if Florida’s Constitution allows for justice to be taxed.