Port: Legislature should say 'no' to money-grubbing municipal courts
Did you know that most municipal court judges in North Dakota don't even have law degrees?
MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota's municipal governments want their municipal courts to be treated exactly like district courts when collecting fines and fees.
That's a terrible idea. While it would certainly enhance revenues for the cities, that would come at the expense of justice.
House Bill 1130 was introduced by Rep. Mike LeFor (R-Dickinson), but the amended version of the bill , which has emerged from the House Judiciary Committee, looks very different from what she proposed . The amendments, offered by Rep. Lawrence Klemin (R-Bismarck) , "hog housed" the original bill, which is the legislative parlance used to describe a situation when amendments replace the original bill's entirety.
The bill is now somewhat lengthy, but the gist of what's being sought can be summed up with this line from the amendments: "The clerk of district court shall treat the municipal court judgment in the same manner as a civil judgment of any district court of any county of the state."
These amendments were approved by the Judiciary Committee today and given a narrow "do pass" recommendation from the committee members. The bill will go to the House floor for a vote sometime later this week.
You may be wondering why this is a problem. Why shouldn't municipal court judgments be eligible for the same collection methods —things like liens and garnishments — that district courts do?
The reason is that district courts have far more expertise and more accountability than municipal courts do.
Did you know that municipal court judges in North Dakota don't need legal training? Most of them don't. Out of the state's 75 municipal judges , only 19 have law degrees.
These judges, who are hired by the cities, not only have less legal expertise, but they're less accountable. District courts have an existing process for challenging judgments. In a 2012 case called Holbach vs. Minot , the state Supreme Court has ruled that a similar process cannot exist for municipal courts.
Municipal court judgments can be appealed to district court, but that has to happen within 30 days of the municipal court judgment, which can happen, in some circumstances, without the defendant in the case even knowing they have a judgment against them.
Any challenge of a judgment would likely rely on records from the original municipal court proceeding anyway, and those are hard to come by. Municipal courts don't keep transcripts — you can't get one even if you request one —and there few set standards for record-keeping from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. A record from a municipal judgment that might be available in, say, Fargo might not be available in Minot.
This is probably already a problem for the municipal courts. Americans, even those who find themselves before a municipal court, have a right to equal protection under the law. To the extent that post-judgment relief is even possible in municipal courts, as they are currently constituted, the disparities in record keeping from jurisdiction to jurisdiction make seeking that relief more of a challenge in some areas than others.
Your access to such relief shouldn't hinge on which city you're living in.
This legislation would ask that the municipal court judgments be treated as a district court civil judgment, but municipal courts have no experience in civil cases. They work exclusively with criminal cases, though none more serious than class B misdemeanors—things like traffic fines and DUI's. District court judges not only have more legal training than municipal court judges, but they also have experience with civil proceedings because they preside over them.
So why, given this parade of flaws in the municipal courts, are interests like the League of Cities (the lobbyists for the state's municipal governments) pushing for this bill?
It's about money.
Guess who gets to keep the revenue from municipal court fines and fees? Municipal governments, which is why they're always pushing to expand the jurisdiction of municipal courts and push for the ability to raise things like speeding fines above state levels.
For those who would argue that this isn't about money, we could test the theory. If municipal courts want to be treated like district courts, why not require that the revenues they generate flow into the state's Common Schools Trust Fund as those from district courts do?
I suspect the cities and their lobbyists wouldn't be keen on that, which tells you all you need to know about their motivations.
UPDATE 01/20/21 8:12 am: The original version of this column identified Rep. Vicki Steiner (R-Dickinson) as the primary sponsor of this legislation. That was an error. The primary sponsor is Rep. Mike LeFor (R-Dickinson). Steiner is a co-sponsor. The column has been edited to reflect this correction.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .