By Clair McFarland, General Assignment Reporter
A proposed law change simplifying civil court filing fees evolved Monday into a debate about how much Wyoming residents should be expected to pay for court services.
House Bill 14 would raise the initial filing fee for lawsuits in Wyoming district courts from $120 to $160 to match probate court filings, which are also set at $160. It cleared the House Judiciary Committee meeting Monday on a 6-3 vote and now is being considered by the state House as a whole.
Courts, Clerks Like Bill
Elisa Butler, state court administrator for the Wyoming judicial branch, told the committee that matching the fees would limit confusion among district court clerks about whether guardianship and conservatorship cases fall under probate or civil actions.
Diane Sanchez, Laramie County District Court clerk, echoed Butler, saying the current law makes clerks less efficient because when people e-file cases and pay the wrong fee, clerks have to track the filer down and either ask for more money or issue a refund.
Why Not The Lower Fee?
Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, said he could not vote for the bill because it would raise the lesser fee rather than lower the greater fee to match. He also said he couldn’t propose an amendment setting both types of fees at $120 because it wouldn’t be germane to the bill’s description.
“Wyoming is approaching $2 billion extra dollars and inflation is hitting all of the hardworking folks out there,” said Jennings, speaking to Butler. “Did you give any thought to actually lowering the $160 down to the $120 so they would be even?”
Butler said she couldn’t give an accounting of the interim Judiciary Committee’s reasoning in drafting the bill, but noted that filing fees go toward their respective county general funds and are not enough to cover the operating costs of district court clerk offices. Those offices require additional county public funds to operate, she said.
Butler also said other states have much higher filing fees.
Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, later added that some of Wyoming’s neighbor states charge initial filing fees of more than $500, plus they charge larger amounts for subsequent filings.
Crago works as a county attorney civil deputy for Johnson County.
Jennings countered, saying that, “I don’t know of any state around us that has the kind of money that’s in the black like we are … our fees shouldn’t be as high as others’, I would argue.”
‘Pay Your Way’
Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, said codifying in statute the lesser fee for both types of filings would perpetuate a system whereby people’s civil disputes are largely passed on to all other taxpayers.
“The reality is, the person who is doing that filing is availing themselves of the court,” said Oakley. “(If) I have a problem, I have a personal dispute and I need access to the court. It makes sense that the person getting the service pay for it.”
Oakley added that courts also are facing inflationary costs and becoming more expensive to operate, just like other spheres of operation.
“You have to pay your way,” she said. “We believe in paying your way in Wyoming, too, right?”
Oakley voted in favor of advancing the bill, along with Crago. Other ayes included Rep. Ken Chestek, D-Laramie, Rep. Tony Niemiec, R-Green River, Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, and committee Chairman Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper.
The no-votes included Jennings, Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, and Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland.