The bill's sponsor said he's simply trying to spark a conversation about Alabama's reliance on court fees to fund its state government, and about seeming unevenness in court costs from county to county.
"I really would not want to take away a judge's discretion," said Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, the bill's sponsor. "The fact is that some judges waive court costs in some cases more than others."
Poole's bill states that "a court may not waive, set aside or otherwise fail to collect court costs or docket fees."
Court fees have become a touchy subject for Alabama's lawyers and judges in recent years. Funding for the court system has stagnated since the 2008 recession, and the state's courts have adjusted by laying off staff and limiting courthouses' hours of operation. In 2012, the state approved a raft of increased court fees intended to raise an additional $20 million for the court system.
State officials have said the collection rate on those fees is low, in part because many of the people who come through the court system are living below the poverty line. In 2012, Alabama courts turned over 5,402 unpaid court fees to district attorneys, though it's not clear how many of those fees were charged to people who didn't have the money to pay.
Calhoun County Circuit Judge Debra Jones said she rarely waives court fees outright. Even people on federal disability, also known as SSI, will be asked to pay off their court fees little by little.
"A person with an SSI check who can't pay the whole amount can pay a minuscule amount," Jones said. She said she does waive fees for some disabled, low-income defendants.
Susan Watson, director of the ACLU of Alabama, said that if judges couldn't waive court fees for people who can't afford to pay, it would hurt poor people in both criminal and civil courts.
"You can't get blood from a turnip," Watson said. "If they cannot afford to pay, the question is, do they get jail time for that?"
Even Poole himself seemed to backtrack from the bill's wording on waiving court costs, in a telephone conversation with The Star.
"Despite what the bill says, it's not an absolute statement of my intention," Poole said.
Poole said he filed the bill to "get a conversation started" about fees in Alabama's court system. He said he never believed the bill would pass as now worded, without amendments.
"I wanted to flush the issue out, to see who would get upset," he told a Star reporter. "You're the first person who's asked me about it in a while."
Poole said he had a number of major concerns about court fees in Alabama. One, he said, was that some of the state's court fees are earmarked for functions other than the court system. His bill, if passed, would send all fees to the state's General Fund, which funds the court system, he said.
Poole said he was also concerned that court fees vary from county to county, and that there's no consistency, statewide, about which fees get waived and which do not. He said that for the bill to pass, it would likely require amendments — including, possibly, an amendment to allow waivers of fees only for indigent clients.
"I think it's a good way to find out who's interested in this issue," Poole said of the bill.
The Star asked Poole if he would vote for his own bill as currently worded. Not without input from others, he said.
"It would have to be amended to address some issues," he said.
Poole said that even if the bill passed as currently worded, would affect most fees charged by courts — but it wouldn't affect the attorney fees the state collects from indigent defendants who get court-appointed lawyers.
In the 1963 decision Gideon v. Wainright, the U.S. Supreme Court required courts to provide lawyers for defendants who couldn’t afford to hire lawyers on their own — but Alabama does charge a fee, after the trial, for the use of a court-appointed lawyer. The state collected $4 million in legal fees from indigent defendants in 2012, according to state records, and state officials say that’s only a fraction of the fees those clients actually owe.
Poole said those attorney fees don't count as regular court fees and wouldn't be covered by his bill.
The legislative session begins Jan.14.
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.