SALEM — The state's new chief justice had a question for the lawyer defending the cost of appealing a traffic ticket yesterday.
"From the perspective of the average Joe ... what's the message here? You've got to pay to have your day in court?" asked Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland.
The answer, from an assistant attorney general representing the court system: yes, at least when it comes to moving violations.
But a Belmont attorney who found himself in the wrong lane in Salem two years ago says the $75 it cost him to challenge the ticket he received is just plain unfair — and violates his right and the rights of thousands of others to equal protection and due process under the law.
"I'm here this morning on behalf of myself, and I'm also here on behalf of all the people standing in line in district courts all over the commonwealth every morning waiting for a magistrate on the question of whether or not they're responsible for a motor vehicle infraction," Ralph Sullivan told the justices yesterday.
The current fees were created in 2009, after Sullivan's traffic stop but before his appeal was heard.
Sullivan argues that the fees not only discourage people from appealing traffic tickets, but that they're unfair because there is no similar fee for other civil infractions, such as possession of less than an ounce of marijuana or smoking in a prohibited area.
Beyond that, a person charged with both a civil infraction like the lanes violation ticket Sullivan received and a criminal offense, such as driving on a suspended license, would not have to pay to challenge the case, he argued.
Justice Francis Spina responded that adding a civil infraction to a criminal case docket doesn't add to the cost of prosecuting the matter.
Sullivan said that shouldn't matter.
"On the day I appeared at Salem District Court, there was a roomful of defendants, and I was the only one who had to pay that day to be heard by a judge," Sullivan said.
When he won his case because the court had summoned the wrong officer to appear for the hearing, he tried to get Judge Richard Mori to refund his filing fees for both the clerk's hearing, $25, and the appeal to the judge, $50. Mori denied his request.
Justice Robert Cordy suggested that fees have been part of the court system forever, noting that it's how clerks once earned their pay.
But Sullivan suggested that the difference is that most of the time, the court charges a fee only to file a civil lawsuit, not to appeal an action of the state.
Assistant Attorney General William Porter refuted that, pointing to examples like an appeal of a Department of Environmental Protection penalty for a wetlands violation, or a challenge to an eminent domain request, or even an appeal to the Appellate Tax Board.
And several justices mentioned the availability of waivers of the fee for indigent people.
Sullivan countered that a lot of people who don't qualify as indigent still struggle financially, living from paycheck to paycheck, and face a hardship in having to come up with $75.
Justice Ralph Gants asked Porter whether there's a limit as to what fee is reasonable.
"What if the Legislature, to discourage appeals, set the fine at $1,000?" Gants asked.
Porter argued that the law would prevent a fee that is "arbitrary or irrational."
"Why is ($1,000) arbitrary and this is not?" Gants asked.
Porter suggested that $25 for a clerk's hearing is not unreasonable "as an attempt to defray part of the costs, and attempt to make litigants think once, if not twice, about going to court."
As for the $50 fee to appeal a clerk's decision to a judge, Porter said that's not even a constitutional requirement.
Cordy suggested, however, that appeals are an important check on the system.
"It's important to have someone contest these from time to time," Cordy said.
Justice Margot Botsford suggested it's reasonable for the state to seek to recover some of the administrative costs of ticket appeals.
"It's one of the statutes that generates a lot of appeals, so it's not irrational to seek to recover that cost," she said.
The court also heard an appeal of a case in Northampton in which a motorist is challenging the process for appealing a parking ticket.
The SJC usually hands down rulings within four months of the time the cases are heard.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis may be reached at 978-338-2521 or email@example.com.