Originally created 05/03/04

Special session has implications for anyone who uses court system



ATLANTA -- If you file a lawsuit, probate a will, get a traffic ticket or break a law, you will help pay the costs of providing lawyers for poor people under a bill that lawmakers are considering in the special session starting Monday.

The legislation they have been called back to Atlanta to address would impose additional fees and fines on most everyone who uses the court system - voluntarily or involuntarily.

The money would help finance the state's overhaul of its indigent defense system.

Got a lawsuit to file? That will be an extra $15. Hit with a fine? You'll pay an extra 10 percent. The amount to be collected from all those litigants or lawbreakers is supposed to add up to about $57 million a year.

It's far from the first time the state has used "add-on" fees or fines to pay for something it couldn't afford to fund from the general treasury. Since 1950, 21 such fees or fines have been adopted to help finance state and local programs.

There are add-on fees and fines which put a little more financial muscle into the retirement fund for superior court clerks, probate court judges and local sheriffs. Other fees and fines support county law libraries, law enforcement training, drug abuse education, victim assistance programs and a fund for those who have suffered brain and spinal cord injuries.

Many of the fees and fines apply only to specific people.

Only those who have been convicted of driving under the influence, for example, pay the 10 percent add-on fine that generates about $1.5 million a year for the Georgia Brain and Spinal Injury Trust Fund. The fund, in turn, makes grants of up to $5,000 to those who have suffered traumatic injury and exhausted other fund sources.

At least six other fees and fines also are applied to DUI convictions, according to a 2001 study by the State Auditor, who found that when all the extra costs were added on, a $400 initial fine for a first DUI offense actually translated into a $525 bite out of the culprit's wallet.

The new indigent defense fees and fines will support the state's most serious effort to date to provide adequate legal representation to poor people accused of crimes. Currently, it is paying about $9 million a year, roughly 10 percent of the cost, while local governments absorb the rest.

Legislation approved last year with broad bipartisan support creates a statewide public defender system to replace a hodgepodge system condemned as "grossly unfair" by a state Supreme Court commission.

Lawmakers were supposed to fund the new program in the regular session that ended April 7, but talks collapsed in the final hours and the measure failed to pass. However, lawmakers did manage to pass a budget which counted on the additional $57 million from the new fines and fees as part of the state's revenue stream.

Moments after adjournment, Gov. Sonny Perdue declared lawmakers had left the budget unbalanced by failing to approve the new fines and fees, and said he would call them back to town to correct the problem. Monday's special session is the result of that.

The legislation didn't pass during the regular session because of dispute between Perdue, a Republican, and Democratic leaders of the House over control of the purse strings.

Perdue wanted language added declaring that the governor could review and change the budget for indigent defense programs in Georgia before submitting it to the Legislature.

Under current law, the governor has no power to change judicial budget requests but must pass them along to the Legislature exactly as submitted by the courts. The Legislature is under no such restriction.

Perdue contends the courts have been padding their budgets for years and that House Democrats have then redirected the money to their own special projects.

House Democrats, who balked at Perdue's demand for more budget power, claimed he wanted to usurp the power of the courts and was threatening judicial independence.

The governor's office since has countered that 30 other states allow the governor to amend judicial budget requests.

The dispute seems to have been worked out ahead of the session, meaning there likely will be little controversy over the bill when lawmakers come to town. That will leave them mostly marking time to comply with the rules that dictate how bills are passed. The shortest possible time is five days, and that is their goal.

Under terms of the settlement announced by Perdue last week, language will be added to the bill that will strictly limit how quickly the budget for indigent defense can grow from year to year.

He won't get the power to change the budget for indigent defense, but he'll get an early look at the recommendation and can add any comments he wants to make when he submits the request to the Legislature.