States continue to press for federal legislation to intercept income tax refunds to pay for court fees and fines

Readers of Gavel to Gavel the e-publication (and if you aren’t, why not subscribe now?) may recall several weeks ago I discussed resolutions in 3 states that asked Congress to intercept tax refunds and similar items in order to collect court fees and fines. Two other states have now introduced similar legislation in last week.

Mississippi’s SCR 671 “urge[s] the United States Congress to support legislation to add conforming language to federal statutes that will enable the states to intercept federal tax refunds for payment of obligations under legally enforceable court orders.”

Delaware’s HJR 9 notes “Delaware has an intercept system for state tax refunds and state lottery recipients that has collected more than one million dollars ($1,000,000) in outstanding court-ordered restitution, fines, fees and costs, over the past ten years” and encourages Congress pass the federal intercept legislation currently pending.

PA: Problem solving courts clear House

Pennsylvania’s courts, like those in many other states, have included the use of problem solving courts or problem solving dockets in the past. However, SB 383 could set Pennsylvania apart in terms of the number and types of such courts available.  The bill allows each court to create any type of problem solving court, including but not limited to drug courts, mental health courts, and DUI courts. The Supreme Court is also permitted to appoint a statewide problem solving courts coordinator and an advisory committee to assist the coordinator. The bill was approved by a unanimous House on March 23 and returns to the Senate for its concurrence in a House amendment that lays out specific provisions with respect to drug courts along with a special surcharge to help pay for drug courts only.

OK: State courts may not reference U.S. treaties or conventions?

Late last week, Oklahoma’s House voted to amend the state constitution to ban court references to sharia law and international law. HJR 1056 would enact the “Save Our State Amendment” and would include the following as a new paragraph of the state’s Judiciary Article (Article VII):

The Courts provided for in subsection A of this section, when exercising their judicial authority, shall uphold and adhere to the law as provided in the United States Constitution, the Oklahoma Constitution, the United States Code, federal regulations promulgated pursuant thereto, established common law, and the Oklahoma Statutes and rules promulgated pursuant thereto in making judicial decisions.  The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures.  Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia Law. The provisions of this subsection shall apply to all cases before the respective courts including, but not limited to, cases of first impression. (emphasis added)

The bill, as originally introduced, read:

The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures.  Specifically, the courts shall not consider Sharia Law, international law, the constitutions, laws, rules, regulations, and decisions of courts or tribunals of other nations, or conventions or treaties, whether or not the United States is a party. The provisions of this subsection shall apply to all cases before the respective courts including, but not limited to, cases of first impression.

The original language was approved by the House Rules Committee but amended on the floor. The bill, as amended, passed on a 91-2 vote.

FL: Retired judges/justices recall to service program

We have this submission from Cristina Alonso, an attorney with Carlton Fields and co-chair of the NCSC Young Lawyers committee.

Florida is considering bringing judges out of retirement to help the courts. HB 13 and SB 130 permit the chief judge of a judicial circuit, subject to approval by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to establish a program for retired justices or judges to preside over civil cases & trials or to hear motions upon written request of one or more parties. The bills further provide for compensation of such justices or judges to be paid by the parties by deposit into the Operating Trust Fund of the state courts system.

A similar bill  (HB 369 of 2009) was passed by the House 114-0 last year, but was not taken up in the Senate.

This year’s House version was approved by the chamber’s Civil Justice and Courts Policy Committee on February 16. The Senate version was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 9.

VT: Committee approves bill to restructure entire state’s judiciary

In early February, I mentioned that Vermont was considering a bill to restructure the state’s entire judicial structure. The House Judiciary Committee approved that bill, with amendments, on March 16. The full text of the 181-page bill is available here. The bill now goes to the House Committee on Appropriations while the House Judiciary’s schedule indicates preparations are being made on March 19 for floor debate.

CO: Legislature asks for Supreme Court opinion on Citizens United

While generally courts are permitted to entertain only cases and controversies, several states allow their Supreme Court to issue advisory opinions. Colorado’s Constitution gives its Supreme Court the power to weigh in “upon important questions upon solemn occasions when required by the governor, the senate, or the house of representatives”.

Colorado’s Governor made such a request on February 9 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. The request paid specific attention to a provision in Colorado’s constitution that states “it shall be unlawful for a corporation or labor organization to provide funding for an electioneering communication; except that any political committee or small donor committee established by such corporation or labor organization may provide funding for an electioneering communication.”

Although the governor alone could have asked for a Supreme Court advisory opinion, both chambers of the state’s legislature added their request through HJR 1011 on February 10. The joint resolution found the questions posed by the governor of “extreme importance and public interest [and] that it is essential that an immediate determination be secured…”

More push-pull legislation on court funding

Readers may recall the Florida House bills proposed several weeks ago that would provide the courts guaranteed funding, but only if judicial immunity and a list of other changes made to the way courts and judges operate. Now the Senate has introduced identical bills (SB 2636 and SB 2640).

Georgia, meanwhile, is also considering tying additional funding to changes in court structure. SB 429 would add a $100 judicial operations fund fee to all civil actions with the proceeds to be deposited into the general fund of the state treasury for funding salaries of judges and the operational needs of the judicial system. This additional funding comes, however, only if the Supreme Court is increased from 7 to 9 justices and the Court of Appeals from 12 to 15. Unlike in most states where a change to the number of Supreme Court justices would require a constitutional amendment,Article VI Section VI of Georgia’s Constitution allows the legislature to set the number so long as it is below 9 (interestingly, there appears to be no minimum). Gavel to Gavel readers may recall a similar effort to expand the Supreme Court in 2007. This, from Gavel to Gavel’s first edition

Georgia media reports legislation may be considered to increase from 7 to 9 the number of seats on that state’s high court. Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears urged lawmakers not to alter the court, telling them “We are doing well. We are getting it done. We have the manpower we need.”

Changes to the appellate courts are rare, especially courts of last resort. Since 1990, only 2 states have had such changes. Nevada’s Supreme Court grew from 5 to 7 members in 1999 (AB 343 of 1997). In that same year, Iowa’s Supreme Court shrank from 9 to 7 as 3 judges were added to the state’s Court of Appeals (HF 2471 of 1998).