The Texas Supreme Court released a strongly-worded opinion on Tarrant County District Clerk Thomas Wilder’s practice of procuring court costs from six indigent litigants, who filed divorces in the county. In its 8-0 ruling on Campbell v. Wilder, the high court issued a stern warning to judges looking to collect any amount of money from indigent parties, calling it an “an abuse of discretion for any judge, including a family law judge, to order costs in spite of an uncontested affidavit of indigence.”
A Brighter Future for Indigent Litigants in Texas
Lee Difilippo, the petitioners’ lawyer in the trial court, praised the opinion and hopes it guarantees the rights of indigent litigants are protected from here on out. Beaming with pride over her clients and the long journey they embarked on to affirm their constitutional rights, Difilippo notes how their efforts will have a huge impact on the future of all indigent litigants within the State of Texas, especially since many county clerks across other counties observe the same policies as Wilder’s.
“It’ll hopefully just stop these practices,” she added.
Difilippo is also the founder of Difilippo Holistic Law Center in Austin, a non-profit law firm that helps litigants who are unable to afford their own lawyers and access to courts.
The opinion, released on April 1, explains the circumstances of the petitioners, who filed divorces in Tarrant County. District courts that received their cases released final divorce decrees requiring each party to bear their own costs, or that each spouse would have to cover their respective court costs. Wilder then sent collection notices to the indigent litigants, asking for an average amount of $300.
The petitioners responded by filing a lawsuit against Wilder, leading to a district court issuing a temporary injunction to prohibit the district clerk’s policy of demanding court costs from indigent parties. Wilder, however, appealed, pointing out that the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction as the litigants had to return to the original courts of their divorce cases to change the judgments in their respective cases. In light of Wilder’s appeal, the judgment was vacated by the court of appeals, who dismissed the case for a lack of proper jurisdiction.
Fortunately, the high court reversed the court of appeals’ ruling and sent in back to the trial court.
Ball in Wilder’s Court
According to Difilippo, she could request a hearing the moment the case makes its way back to the trial court in order to obtain a permanent injunction and stop Wilder’s policy. Before that, however, Difilippo’s priority is getting Wilder’s side to see his reaction. The lawyer notes that his best course of action would be to settle and return the money to her clients.