Texas Chief Justice Calls Pulling IDs Over Fines 'Stupid'

By Nadia Dreid | July 9, 2024, 10:56 PM EDT ·

The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a Tuesday hearing on funding civil legal aid that the practice of revoking a person's driver's license for an inability to pay court fees was "stupid."

Justice Nathan L. Hecht was one of four witnesses assembled by the committee to offer their thoughts on the importance of filling the "justice gap" created by millions of Americans being too poor to afford a lawyer and, therefore, access the civil legal system.

He told the committee that he actually once told the Texas legislature during the annual State of the Legislature address that it might be a better idea in the Lone Star State to threaten to revoke people's hunting licenses, prompting chuckles in the room.

Texas has since done away with mandatory revocation of licenses for inability to pay court fees.

"The debt trap is a problem, but I think one of the hardest things about it is that it's also stupid," Justice Hecht told the committee. "When we gave judges the discretion not to revoke driver's licenses and to waive part of the fee, collections went up."

The system actually produced more revenue, because people will generally agree to pay some of the fine or fee if they can't afford it all.

"If they can't pay their fine, why would you keep them from going to work?" Justice Hecht said. "It makes no sense."

The subject came up because Senator Chris Coons, D-Del., who was leading the hearing, has proposed a bill that would incentivize states that do not suspend or refuse to renew licenses for failure to pay civil and criminal fines and fees with grants.

Taking away driver's licenses from people who cannot afford fees is only one of the ways that the civil legal system is hurting the nation's poor and blocking them from accessing the courts, according to the senators and witnesses assembled Tuesday.

The Legal Services Corporation, a government nonprofit that turns 50 this year, gets money from the government to provide civil legal aid to help low income parties navigate the civil court system — but not much, according to the head of the agency.

This year, the agency only got $160 million more than it was appropriated 30 years ago in 1994. If its '90s budget had only been adjusted for inflation, LSC's current budget would be well over a billion dollars, according to Legal Services Corporation President Ronald S. Flagg.

What this means is that they have to turn away one person for every person they help, not because their cases don't have merit, but simply because they don't have the resources.

Nikole Nelson, CEO of Frontline Justice and former executive director of Alaska Legal Services Corporation, told the committee that the lack of resources turns civil aid workers "into gatekeepers who are forced to ration justice."

"This hurts those who are denied services and it hurts those who do the rationing," she said.

It is called the "justice gap" — the idea that there is a wide gulf of justice between those who can afford to bring a lawyer to court and those who can't, if they ever think of taking their issues to court at all.

Landlord and tenant disputes are one issue where representation makes a stark difference, Flagg said. In cases where a tenant has no attorney, they lose 90% of the time, he told the committee. But give them an attorney and that figure is flipped — the tenant gets a favorable result 90% of the time.

"When confronted with these life altering issues, [low income households] receive no or inadequate legal assistance for 92% of their significant civil legal needs," Flagg said. Each year, the legal aid group has to turn away more than half a million domestic violence and one million children, among thousands and thousands of others, he said.

"These numbers actually understate the problem because they don't include those who don't seek legal aid because they don't know they are facing a legal problem or they make just a little bit more" than the agency's strict income rules allow, Flagg said.

Aside from more money, which everyone on the panel was in favor of Congress providing, witnesses also spoke in favor of opening up the legal profession a bit so that a new class of justice workers can offer assistance in limited matters.

This requires changing laws in some places, and in others, like Alaska — which has far fewer lawyers than it needs and laws that allow justice workers — funneling resources toward creating the necessary training and systems in place for them to be of use, Nelson said.

After 25 years in the field, Nelson said she is an advocate for justice workers because he now believes they are the "only scalable option."

--Editing by Vaqas Asghar.

Hello! I'm Law360's automated support bot.

How can I help you today?

For example, you can type:
  • I forgot my password
  • I took a free trial but didn't get a verification email
  • How do I sign up for a newsletter?
Ask a question!