April 29, 2013
Tarrant County appeals order blocking collection of court fees from indigents
FORT WORTH — — Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder is appealing a visiting judge’s order that he stop collecting court filing fees from low-income litigants who were declared indigent under state law.
Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Chris Ponder said the county is appealing the case to the 2nd Court of Appeals after visiting state District Judge David Cleveland of Palo Pinto County issued a temporary injunction this month to stop Wilder from collecting the fees.
Two legal aid agencies sued Wilder, accusing him of engaging in conduct to “intimidate” their clients into paying court fees even though they properly filed indigency affidavits.
But when the Texas Advocacy Project and Legal Aid of Northwest Texas asked the court for additional time to prepare and the judge granted a continuance to move the trial from May 2 to July 30, the county filed an accelerated appeal with the Fort Worth appeals court.
“The appeal won’t necessarily be on the merits [of the case], but that the trial court didn’t have jurisdiction” to issue the temporary injunction, Ponder said.
Andrea Sloan, executive director of the Texas Advocacy Project, said the agency is “confident that the trial court’s ruling is appropriate and will stand.”
Sloan wrote in an email that some “significant” issues need to be resolved before the case is ready for a final hearing.
Wilder is being sued after several Tarrant County residents who had affidavits proving their indigency described receiving threatening letters long after their divorces were final.
The letters stated that if they did not pay their court costs in 10 days, a constable or sheriff’s deputy could come to their homes and collect items to pay the debt.
Shawnta Coleman, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said she received a letter stating that she owed $308, a year after her divorce was final.
Coleman said she obtained her divorce forms from the Internet and filled in the blanks herself. She was aware of language that said, “The husband and wife shall pay court costs.”
She argued that she had an affidavit proving her indigency.
Wilder testified that he was following orders from the divorce decrees after they were signed by district judges.
Ponder added that Wilder is in a difficult position because of the final orders found in the divorce decrees.
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