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A More Progressive Approach to Legal Representation

State high court considers whether unpaid court fees should bar inmate appeals

A few weeks back, our blog spent some time discussing the latest efforts of the state's Indigent Representation Task Force, a group tasked with examining the efficacy of Tennessee's efforts to provide legal representation to impoverished people facing criminal charges.

Interestingly enough, the legal spotlight was once again on this intersection of poverty and the adequacy of access to the state court system in Hughes v. TN Board of Probation & Parole, a rather compelling case argued before the Tennessee Supreme Court earlier this month.

According to the facts of the case, the defendant, who is currently serving a 60-year sentence after being convicted of two counts of second-degree murder, was denied parole back in 2011.

He appealed to the chancery court, which then dismissed his appeal on the grounds that he owed $258.85 in past-due court fees and state law provides that inmates in arrears cannot file new cases. This decision was later affirmed by the appellate court.

The defendant pursued the matter all the way to the state's highest court, which heard oral arguments in early June.

Here, his attorney argued that the state law preventing inmates from filing subsequent lawsuits due to unpaid court fees was unconstitutional, as it essentially denied access to the criminal justice system purely on the basis of wealth.

For its part, the state Board of Parole argued that the law passes constitutional muster given that it is designed to prevent the filing of frivolous lawsuits by inmates and minimize the costs to taxpayers of covering these cases. It also argued that the defendant had no legal right to challenge the denial of his parole, as it is a privilege, not a right.

While the state Supreme Court has yet to hand down a decision, it's worth noting that several justices did call the purpose of the law into question and express concern that it treats inmates differently based purely on access to funds.

Stay tuned for updates …

If you are under investigation or have been charged with any sort of felony, it's imperative to consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible.   

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