The justices of the Illinois Supreme Court agreed court clerks lack the legal authority to tack on supposedly mandatory fines to judgments entered against defendants, when no judge ever ordered the defendants to pay the fines.
However, the court divided sharply over what recourse defendants can use to stop clerks from collecting the fines, nonetheless.
Justice Charles Freeman, who in May announced his intent to retire from the court by June 15, authored the majority opinion. Justices Thomas Kilbride, Rita B. Garman, Anne M. Burke and Mary Jane Theis concurred in the decision, asserting that, should clerks enter fines in excess of what a judge has ordered, defendants cannot address them in an appeal. Rather, they said, the defendants must sue the clerk’s office to get their money back.
Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier and Justice Robert R. Thomas entered impassioned dissents to the majority opinion, citing a litany of case law they claim the majority ignored or misinterpreted in coming to its decision.
Justice Charles E. Freeman Illinoiscourts.gov
The question came before the court in the form of a child pornography conviction in Stephenson County in northwest Illinois. The defendant, upon conviction, was sentenced to prison and ordered to pay several fines mandated by statute. About 18 months later, the defendant was granted leave to enter the Stephenson County circuit clerk’s payment status information sheet into the court record. The record showed the circuit clerk had added several more mandatory fines that were not included in the court’s judgment. The defendant appealed – not his conviction nor his sentence, but only the additional fines not part of the judgment against him. Acknowledging that a clerk cannot legally levy fines, prosecutors still asked the appellate court to impose the mandatory fines against the defendant. Justices of the Illinois Second District Appellate Court demurred, claiming lack of jurisdiction, but also vacated the additional fines.
The Stephenson County state’s attorney appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, where the majority ruled the appellate court lacked the jurisdiction not only to impose the fines, but even to review the clerk’s recording. The Supreme Court vacated the appellate ruling and dismissed the appeal.
The majority noted case law establishes imposition of fines as part of a criminal sentence as a judicial function that cannot be carried out by anyone other than a circuit judge. Justices said the clerk’s responsibility is only to accurately record and enter the judgment of the court, which did not include the additional fines. Justices also objected to allowing the payment status sheet as a supplement to the record because it was created outside the trial proceedings.
The majority, however, went a step further, saying even though the additional fines were invalid and unenforceable, the defendant did not have the right to appeal them.
“The appellate court is constitutionally vested with jurisdiction to review final judgments entered by circuit courts,” justices wrote. “The recording of a fine is a clerical, ministerial function and is not a judgment – void or otherwise. Therefore, the improper recording of a fine is not subject to direct review by the appellate court.”
Karmeier and Thomas disagreed so vehemently with the majority decision they entered two separate dissents. Karmeier said the “labrynthine” system of fees and fines in the Illinois court system, which vary widely from county to county, make defendants susceptible to “being further marginalized by having illegal and void assessments imposed against them following trial.” While such errors should be corrected at the circuit level, Karmeier argued there is lengthy precedent allowing appellate courts to review and correct them. He also objected to the majority’s narrow reading of the Clerks of Courts Act that narrowly differentiates between “fines” and “fees,” noting the General Assembly has a long history of confusing the two terms when writing legislation.
Thomas characterized the majority opinion as “both wrong as a matter of court power and unconscionable as a matter of policy” and claimed the majority was unsettling precedent.
“It is doubtful that any court has endorsed a more enfeebled notion of appellate court power than that set forth by the majority today,” Justice Thomas wrote.
Thomas argued the majority’s opinion that appellate courts cannot vacate fines recorded by a clerk that were not part of the original judgment will also prohibit the courts from vacating other fines and fees, such as duplicate fees or fees improperly labeled as fines.
“Moreover, what will become of the assessments in cases in which a defendant has his or her conviction reversed or vacated?” Thomas asked. “Will the assessments remain on the books unless a defendant brings a separate … action to have them vacated?”
Thomas cited several historical judgments and pieces of legislation that establish the court’s ability and responsibility to correct errors of the clerk.
“Whether viewed as illegal assessments that are void or simply as clerical errors, the improperly imposed fines could be challenged at any time, and the appellate court had jurisdiction to vacate them,” he wrote.