NMA E-Newsletter #116: What’s The Message Here?

The National Motorists Association is assisting in an appeal before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, challenging the state’s ability to charge non-refundable filing fees to defendants who simply want to contest a traffic ticket or parking ticket in court.

It all started when Belmont, Massachusetts attorney Ralph Sullivan found himself in the wrong lane in Salem two years ago. Sullivan fought his ticket in court and lost, but then appealed, and finally was found not responsible. Sullivan then requested a refund of his $25 initial hearing fee and $50 appeal fee, but was denied.

The case was combined with that of Vincent Gillespie, who sought to challenge a parking ticket, and had to pay $275 in non-refundable filing fees to fight his ticket all the way through appeal.

The NMA contacted Sullivan to offer assistance in the case. It was agreed that we should prepare what is called an Amicus Curiae brief, supporting and expanding on Sullivan’s own legal arguments against the filing fees. In particular, we wanted to make the case that the fees violate constitutional “due process.” The amicus brief was prepared, submitted to the SJC and accepted as a part of the combined case.

Attorney Sullivan appeared before the court on March 10th for “oral argument” with opposing Assistant Attorney General William W. Porter. (You can read a good account of the oral argument here, or listen to a podcast of the argument here. The oral argument of Gillespie’s attorney, William C. Newman, is here.)

Late in the proceedings, Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland, who had previously remained silent, asked Porter, “From the perspective of the average Joe…what’s the message here? You’ve got to pay to have your day in court…? Is that fair…?”

“I believe it is…” replied Porter.

Obviously, we beg to differ. How can $75 in non-refundable fees to fight a $100 traffic ticket or $275 in non-refundable fees to fight a $15 parking ticket possibly be fair?

The Court now will take time to consider all the oral arguments and review the filed briefs, and then deliver its ruling.

To quote our amicus brief, “The consequences of the Court’s decision on these appeals will materially affect the perceptions of citizens as to the purpose, fairness, legitimacy, and true justice inherent in the entire Massachusetts judicial system.”

We’ll see what message the court decides to send.

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