The Court Funding Conundrum
The administration of justice is not just critically important, it's also costly. While it makes sense to allow courts to charge fees to the criminally guilty for the administration of justice, it's undeniable that doing so creates a potential conflict, or minimally, the appearance of a conflict.
If the fines assessed against the guilty and those offered diversion are used to support the court's operations, the public will logically see that there is a financial benefit to the court finding guilt or offering diversion. Making this even more complex of an issue, when court generated fines and penalties are used to fund other government programs, like traffic enforcement, the appearance of a conflict looks more like a conspiracy between two branches of the government.
Damned If They Fund, Powerless If They Don't
When courts self-fund through fees imposed on criminal defendants, it makes impartiality questionable, which threatens the public's view of the judicial branch as independent. But, what's worse is when state legislatures view the courts as revenue generators and mandate increased fees and fines to make up for budget shortfalls unrelated to the administration of justice. The flip-side of all of this is the very real fact that courts need money to operate, and the alternative is tax money.
Solution: S-PACER and S-ECF Fees
Curiously, though there is some controversy over how PACER fees have been used, the federal courts' public records depository and electronic filing system has generated surprisingly high revenues. It's how all those federal courtrooms got those flashy flat-screen TVs Additionally, the majority of the revenue that gets generated thanks to PACER is more likely than not attributable to commercial uses, such as by law firms, legal researchers, and media, particularly as ECF users get access to a free copy of all filings in their case (via a temporary email link in the filing receipt).
State courts should look at developing their own PACER and ECF systems (S-PACER and S-ECF, if you will). Along with the systems, implementing required electronic filing for all civil matters filed by attorneys would likely be welcome by attorneys, and both a cost saver and revenue generator for the courts.
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