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About the ContributorsThis report was prepared by Nolan Anderson, Randy Kreider, and Kristen Schnell—lawstudents in the Community Advocacy Lab at Columbia Law School. The report wassupervised by Professor Colleen F. Shanahan, the clinic’s director. The CommunityAdvocacy Lab’s collaborating partners for this project were Katrina L. Goodjoint andJessica Feierman at Juvenile Law Center.COMMUNITY ADVOCACY LAB AT COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOLCommunity Advocacy Lab is a clinic at Morningside Heights Legal Services, Inc. atColumbia Law School focused on racial and economic justice, grounded in the needsof communities. Current students are working on criminal justice reform includingadvocacy related to fines and fees, public defense, and police abolition; civil justicereform including family law, public housing conditions, workers’ rights, and consumerdebt. The clinic’s clients range from Harlem-based organizations to national advocacycampaigns. Through client representation, classroom curriculum, and personalsupervision, students in this clinic become lawyers who promote social justice asproblem solvers, creative researchers, and strategic planners who can employ anexpansive range of lawyering strategies beyond litigation to create a more just legalsystem.JUVENILE LAW CENTERJuvenile Law Center is the first non-profit, public interest law firm for children in thecountry. We aim to ensure that laws, policies, and practices affecting youth advanceracial and economic equity and are rooted in research, consistent with children’s uniquedevelopmental characteristics, and reflective of international human rights values. Oureconomic justice project uses policy advocacy, litigation, and research to end the unfairpractice of imposing fines and fees on youth in the justice system and their families. Formore information about Juvenile Law Center, please visit Law Center is grateful to Nolan Anderson, Randy Kreider, and Kristen Schnellfor their comprehensive research and for writing this report, and to Colleen Shanahan,Director of the Columbia Community Advocacy Lab, for her ongoing collaboration in thisproject and in our broader efforts at justice reform. Juvenile Law Center is also gratefulto be working in partnership with the Berkeley Law School Policy and Advocacy Clinicand the National Center for Youth Law on a national campaign to abolish fees andfines imposed on youth in the justice system and their families. Juvenile Law Center’swork on this report, and on our efforts to abolish fees and fines from the justicesystem, are made possible by support from Arnold Ventures and Schusterman FamilyPhilanthropies. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the authorsand do not necessarily represent those of Arnold Ventures or Schusterman FamilyPhilanthropies.


IntroductionIn 2014, A.S., a youth, appeared with her parents before a municipal court judge inAlamosa, Colorado, a small city in the southern part of the state.1 A.S. was sentencedas a juvenile to pay fines and costs and to complete 24 hours of community service.2A.S.’s parents explained that they were unable to pay the outstanding costs, and askedthat A.S.’s community service be postponed because they understood the payment hadto be made first.3 Instead, the judge threatened the parents with two days in jail unlessthey could prove they were truly unable to pay, warning them, “You have to prove to mysatisfaction and to prove to my satisfaction you better make it good.”4Youth and their families across the country often face consequences in municipal courtssimilar to those they would face in the justice system, but without the same proceduralprotections.5 Significant attention—from the public, the media, and academia—focuses on federal and state criminal and juvenile courts. Much less attention is paidto municipal courts, present in cities and towns in over half of U.S. states.6 Thesecourts typically have jurisdiction over local ordinances, including those that commonlyaffect youth, like age-specific curfew ordinances, loitering ordinances, and ordinancesproscribing possession or consumption of alcohol and tobacco by minors.7 The lack ofattention to municipal courts creates real risks for affected youth and their families. InCasper, Wyoming, for example, it took years to discover that the city’s municipal courthad been illegally sentencing youth convicted of possessing alcohol to six months ofprobation (in addition to a fine of up to 750), even though local ordinances limitedsentencing to a fine only.8 This issue is also vital to addressing racial disparities in thejustice system. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous youth are often policed, ticketed and finedfor minor misbehavior like curfew violations and loitering at rates much higher thanwhite youth.9Columbia Law School’s Community Advocacy Lab, in collaboration with Juvenile LawCenter, examined the constitutions and laws of each of the fifty states plus the Districtof Columbia to better understand municipal courts, and specifically how they affectyouth.10 We first looked at the states’ constitutions to assess how municipal courts areauthorized. We then reviewed state codes to understand municipal court jurisdiction.We also examined many of the statutes and ordinances that have the greatest impacton youth in municipal court, like curfew and minor-in-possession laws. Finally, weconsidered the consequences youth and their families face for failure to pay.Our research reveals three key insights: First, the legal framework creates significantopportunities for state, as well as local, advocacy for reform. State legislative advocacy willbe particularly important in states that mandate municipal courts. In states that providemunicipalities more discretion, advocacy can also be directed at local executives. Second,municipal courts expose youth to significant harm without providing them with adequateprocedural protections. And finally, while further research is needed, programs that divertyouth from municipal court and provide developmentally appropriate responses to youthcould provide effective alternatives.Part I of this report examines the constitutional and statutory sources of municipalcourt authority. Part II reviews municipal court jurisdiction, particularly with respectto conduct by youth. Part III discusses the fines and fees that youth and their familiescommonly face in municipal courts and examines how failure to pay these finesand fees can result in harsh penalties including incarceration and driver’s licensesuspensions. Part IV recommends opportunities for ongoing research and reform.2INJUSTICE IN THE LOWEST COURTS: How Municipal Courts Rob America’s Youth

I. Municipal Court AuthorizationAny discussion of municipal court reform must begin with the sources that authorizeand structure their power. The nature and source of a municipal court’s power andauthority will affect where advocacy efforts should be directed, the level of resourcesrequired, and the procedural and institutional hurdles that advocates may face.Constitutional AuthorityStates have almost universally modeled their judicial systems on Article III of theFederal Constitution.11 After establishing a supreme court and certain intermediatecourts, state constitutions will typically vest the legislature with discretion to establishinferior courts by statute.12 These legislative bodies possess broad flexibility to create,alter, or abolish municipal courts by an act of law. Consequently, municipal courtsare primarily creatures of state statutory law. However, as will be discussed below,some state constitutions either explicitly or implicitly grant municipal courts a higherconstitutional status.Figure 1: Constitutional Authority for Municipal WVMOOKNMNCTNSCARALGADCConstitution silent on the issueConstitution authorizes legislature toestablish inferior courtsConstitution authorizes legislature toestablish municipal tion establishes municipal courts orempowers municipality directlySixteen state constitutions provide their legislatures with general discretion toestablish inferior courts, without specifying that such courts must be municipal.13Eleven constitutions narrow that discretion by explicitly authorizing the legislature toestablish municipal courts.14 As an example, the Wisconsin Constitution directs that the“legislature by law may authorize each city, village and town to establish a municipalcourt.”15 While this language is permissive in that the legislature may or may notestablish local courts, it is also restrictive because it specifies the type of court.INJUSTICE IN THE LOWEST COURTS: How Municipal Courts Rob America’s Youth3

Three other states—Pennsylvania, Colorado, and New York—have constitutionalprovisions that may limit state legislative authority over municipal courts. By endowingthese courts with constitutional status, these states create significant proceduralhurdles for municipal court reformers. Pennsylvania, for example, granted Philadelphia’smunicipal courts constitutional status when it vested “[t]he judicial power of theCommonwealth” in the “municipal courts of the City of Philadelphia.”16 New Yorkconstitutionally established city courts in New York City and then grandfathered citycourts in other jurisdictions.17 While the legislature does have the ability to abolishthese courts, a majority of the town’s voters must concur with the legislature.18 Finally,Colorado’s constitution grants municipalities of over 2000 individuals the “power tolegislate upon, provide, regulate, conduct and control: . . . The creation of municipalcourts; the definition and regulation of the jurisdiction, powers and duties thereof, andthe election or appointment of the officers thereof .” The provision explicitly establishesthat municipal charters or ordinances “shall supercede within the territorial limits andother jurisdiction of said city or town any law of the state in conflict therewith.”19 On itsface, this provision would seem to grant municipalities near plenary control over theirmunicipal courts.20 In apparent contravention to the plain meaning of this provision,however, Colorado’s legislature has passed a statute requiring every city to establisha municipal court.21 Glossing over this conflict, the Colorado Supreme Court hasinterpreted this statute to be “[c]onsistent with the constitutional grant of authority”to the municipalities.22 Consequently, it remains an open question as to whether amunicipality can exercise its power to abolish municipal courts in contravention to thestatute requiring their existence.23 Colorado offers a stark example of how the mixing ofpermissive and mandatory language can easily lead to interpretive difficulties.The implications of the courts’ constitutional status are clear. In states where municipalcourts are purely creatures of statutory law, legislative campaigns will be particularlyeffective. In states where the Constitution requires the establishment of one or moremunicipal courts, advocates will be limited in what they can accomplish by statute. Andthe nuances of authority within the state constitution, state statutes, and municipalstatutes will further inform the advocacy strategy in each state.Statutory AuthorityThe mosaic of state law becomes even more pixelated as one zooms in on thedisparate statutes that authorize and detail the creation of municipal courts. Thisunderscores that there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to municipal court reform.By understanding the different authorizing statutes and how they apportion control,advocates can tailor their reform efforts to the particular jurisdiction in which reformis sought.4INJUSTICE IN THE LOWEST COURTS: How Municipal Courts Rob America’s Youth

Figure 2. Type of Statutory AGAState legislation silent on the issueState legislation permits municipal courtsState legislation includes mandatoryand permissive provisionsLAAKFLState legislation mandatesmunicipal courtsHIFigure 2: Illinois and Massachusetts have courts that operate in a similar way, but do not meet thedefinition of a municipal court used in this report. See infra, note 5.In apportioning control, municipal court authorizing statutes range from mandatoryto discretionary. At the mandatory end of the spectrum are the eleven authorizingstatutes like those of Mississippi and Ohio. Mississippi simply decrees that “[t]here shallbe a municipal court in all municipalities of this state.”24 Ohio maintains a running listof municipalities and counties that must establish municipal courts, which is updatedevery few years.25At the discretionary end of the spectrum are the ten states like Oregon, whichprovides that “[a]ny city of this state may establish a municipal court by charter or byordinance.”26 The permissive language delegates power to municipalities to decidewhether or not to establish a municipal court. This discretionary structure of municipalcourts essentially expands the number of institutional decision-makers to two: asuperordinate one (the state) and a subordinate one (the municipalities). These statesare depicted in light green above.In between these two ends of the spectrum are nine states whose statutes containsome mandatory elements and some discretionary elements. Very rarely are twosuch state authorizing statutes exactly alike. Many include mandates based onmunicipality population. In Washington, for example, municipal courts are mandatoryin any incorporated city having a population over 400,000.27 Cities or towns belowthe 400,000-person threshold are given discretion to choose for themselves understate law.28INJUSTICE IN THE LOWEST COURTS: How Municipal Courts Rob America’s Youth5

Indiana is a notable outlier. In that state, “[d]uring 2022 and every fourth year afterthat, a second or third class city or a town may by ordinance establish or abolish acity or town court.”29 This provision is especially noteworthy because it places uniquetemporal restrictions on campaigns that might be aimed at creating or abolishingmunicipal courts in a given municipality. It underscores the importance of a thoroughunderstanding of the structure and source of authority of the municipal courts in whichan advocate seeks to effect change.The patchwork of state municipal court authorizing statutes highlighted abovedemonstrates the opportunities for varying approaches to municipal court reform.Other than in the few states that pose constitutional obstacles to reform, there areopportunities for state legislative advocacy across the country. This centralizedapproach aimed at the state legislature will be efficient, since statutorily createdmunicipal courts ultimately derive their power from state law and not municipalordinance. In states with any discretion granted to the municipality, however, advocatesmay choose to engage in advocacy at the local level. This may be particularly useful instates where a municipality is ripe for reform but the state as a whole may not be.Intermunicipal Resource PoolingFifteen jurisdictions allow for the consolidation of courts across jurisdictions. From anadvocacy perspective, this poses opportunities and challenges. In New Jersey, “[t]wo ormore municipalities, by ordinance, may enter into an agreement establishing a singlejoint municipal court and providing for its administration.”30 Even where two or moremunicipalities wish to keep separate courts, they may still “agree to provide jointly forcourtrooms, chambers, equipment, supplies and employees for their municipal courtsand agree to appoint judges and administrators without establishing a joint municipalcourt.”31 While New Jersey likely represents the apogee of intermunicipal resourcepooling, it is not alone in this approach. In Washington, for example, even where amunicipality is required by law to establish a municipal court it “may terminate thatcourt if the municipality has reached an agreement with the county . . . under whichthe county is to be paid a reasonable amount for costs associated with prosecution,adjudication, and sentencing in criminal cases filed in district court as a result of thetermination.”32The resource pooling statutes provide for an economies-of-scale approach to judicialreform. It may be that courts run more efficiently both in terms of taxpayer costs and theadministration of justice when resources are shared amongst a larger collective. Thisapproach may also pose unique risks, however, as localities may minimize expenditureson courts at the expense of litigants while maximizing court-based revenue.33Advocates working for reform should take a careful look at the potential opportunitiesand pitfalls of resource pooling.6INJUSTICE IN THE LOWEST COURTS: How Municipal Courts Rob America’s Youth

A Note Regarding States Without Municipal CourtsJust because a state has no “municipal” courts does not mean there are no other localcourts with similar concerns. Some states, like Nebraska and Utah, do not ever appearto have had “municipal” courts. Nebraska confers jurisdiction over ordinance violationsto county courts, which are considered more of an arm of the state.34 Unlike Nebraska,however, Utah allows for the creation of “justice courts,” which are akin to municipalcourts in that they are an arm of the municipalities rather than arms of the state.35Described as “entry-level courts,” Pennsylvania’s Magisterial District Courts are alsorelevant here.36 These courts exist on a highly localized level and play a significantrole in issuing fines and fees on youth.37 Other such courts can include police courts,mayors’ courts, justices of the peace, and district courts. While these courts are not thesubject of this project, further research into such courts would benefit advocates of localcourt reform.Some states have ch

2 INJSTICE IN TE LOWEST CORTS: ow Municipal Courts Rob Americas Youth Introduction In 2014, A.S., a youth, appeared with her parents before a municipal court judge in Alamosa, Colorado, a small city in the southern part of the state.1 A.S. was sentenced as a juvenile to pay fines and costs and to complete 24 hours of community service.2 A.S.’s parents explained that they were unable to pay .

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