After six months of contemplation, the Supreme Court of Texas issued its opinion in Campbell v. Wilder in which it helped out our local District Clerk understand that zero equals zero. The Supreme Court of Texas instructed the Tarrant County District Clerk in Fort Worth, Texas to stop its policy of abusing poor people in the county by manufacturing unconstitutional interpretations of court orders to charge filing fees after the court declared the fees waived. Several attorneys and legal aid groups came together to combat this practice. Let’s talk more about this policy and how the Supreme Court of Texas made the right decision to order the Tarrant County District Clerk to stop enforcing this policy.
Required court fees in Tarrant County, Texas
Under Texas procedural rules, a party filing suit must pay filing fees or file an affidavit of indigency. An affidavit of indigency asks the court to waive filing fees because the party cannot afford them. If the district clerk does not oppose the affidavit then the court waives fees. If the Tarrant County District Clerk contests the affidavit there will be a hearing on the party’s ability to pay filing fees. Also, if the court finds indigency then the Tarrant County judge waives fees.
In the final judgments, such as a divorce decree, it is typical to include language assigning the costs of various court fees among the parties. In divorce decrees, specifically, it is normal for the decree to include language that the court costs are taxed to the party who incurred them. The filing fees are owed by the party who filed the lawsuit.
When the affidavit of indigency is upheld by the Tarrant County court then the filing fees reduce to zero dollars. So an assignment of a zero dollar filing fee to the petitioner means the petitioner doesn’t owe anything, right?
Not according to the Tarrant County District Clerk. District Clerk Tom Wilder reinterpreted the court orders to mean the court had reinstituted the filing fee. His office sent notices to petitioners in divorces demanding payment or he would send the sheriff to collect the fees. Petitioners sued the district clerk to stop collection efforts. The trial court issued a temporary injunction against the clerk from pursuing these fees. The local court of appeals overruled the temporary injunction. The Tarrant County district clerk appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas.
Opinion of the Supreme Court of Texas to the Tarrant County District Clerk
The highest court in Texas spent a good deal of time dressing down the Tarrant County District Clerk. The clearest message comes in the form of this paragraph:
The District Clerk argues that because the Family Code provides courts with increased latitude to award costs, it is conceivable that a family court could order costs despite an affidavit of inability to pay. This argument flies in the face of our Constitution and case law. Rule 145 is but one manifestation of the open courts guarantee that “every person . . . shall have remedy by due course of law.” It is an abuse of discretion for any judge, including a family law judge, to order costs in spite of an uncontested affidavit of indigence.
The Supreme Court of Texas returned the case to the trial court to continue with the lawsuit. It seems unlikely that the District Clerk has anywhere to go after the highest court trounced his policy.
Tarrant County, Texas indigent fees and family law
The most common filings in Tarrant County, Texas seeking waivers of indigent fees involve family law proceedings. Many people seek waivers of filing and service fees in family law proceedings, such as divorces, child support and custody proceedings. These family law proceedings often involve people who cannot afford attorneys or the several hundred dollar filing and service fees. These fees produce a gatekeeping function that would keep lower income Texans out of the judicial system. That can keep people in abusive relationships and prevent children from getting necessary financial support.
In this case indigent filers found out afterwards that the District Clerk had pursued fees based upon an opportunistic reading of court orders. It is hard to imagine that the District Clerk was unaware of how these parties suffered from economically fragile conditions when filing their family law or other pleadings. Nevertheless, he sought to squeeze blood from turnips. Thankfully, the Supreme Court of Texas felt differently.