Judge urges an increase in court fees

January 31, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

Last summer, the corporation that owns Howard Johnson's motels spent seven days arguing in Anne Arundel Circuit Court that the state should pay more than the $700,000 it was offering for an acre the hotel chain owned along Maryland Route 50 outside Annapolis.

Northeast Hotels Association presented a dozen exhibits, scores witnesses, took jurors on a bus trip to the hotel site and was awarded $835,000 for its land. The firm paid $100 in court costs, a figure Judge Lawrence H. Rushworth, who presided over the trial, says is "way out of line to what it actually costs to run a courtroom."

Court officials estimate that the cost to the taxpayers of that trial alone probably exceeded $6,000.

Judge Rushworth said the Northeast Hotels case was just one example of well-heeled litigants tying up courtrooms and court personnel for days or weeks, walking away with a generous award and paying only $100 in court costs. He has been quietly lobbying to increase court costs for civil cases for the past several years.

"Some weeks ago, in assessing court costs to a losing party following a lengthy civil jury case, I was astonished to find the total court costs were $110," he wrote in a Sept. 24, 1992, letter to Court Clerk Mary M. Rose.

"We have peanut costs, perhaps we should have frequent filer fees," he wrote in a Nov. 19, 1993, letter to Judge James C. Cawood that was reprinted in "The Gavel," the newsletter for the state's Circuit Court judges.

The fees, which have remained the same for two decades, should be raised, he said last week.

But while it may be appealing to increase fees for corporate litigants with deep pockets, such an increase could prevent others from having their constitutionally guaranteed day in court, said George B. Riggin, Jr., the state court administrator.

"This is as much a public service as anything else," he said. "If the litigant had to pay what it costs to operate a courtroom, you really would price the average litigant out of the ballpark," he said.

Maryland's court costs already are among the top 10 in the nation, he said. New York tops the list at $150 per filing.

Court costs are set by the State Court Administrator and must be approved by the state Board of Public Works.

The fees vary greatly, depending on the services, but in most civil cases, the price often comes to $110: an initial filing fee of $80, an additional $10 for each law firm that appears and $10 for a court clerk.

Mr. Riggin said the $250 million that Maryland district and circuit courts collect in traffic fines, land recordation fees and other charges more than offset the $143 million it costs to operate them.

Robert Wallace, Anne Arundel Circuit Court administrator, estimated that the average costs for a jury trial may reach $100 an hour, if one includes costs for the court clerk, court reporter, judge, juror fees and ancillary costs that make up the county's $2.5 million courthouse budget.

But any increase in fees would affect the the down-and-out and the well-heeled alike, he said.

"The problem is, where do you draw the line? How do you set one fee that's going to cover costs but not squeeze some people out," he said.

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