The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit has affirmed a lower court ruling, siding with Craighead County District Court Judges David Boling and Tommy Fowler, who forgave all fees owed to a private probation company after they were elected in 2016, and then were sued by the private probation company. The company, The Justice Network, sued the judges in federal court alleging that they had violated its civil rights by interfering with the contractual relationship Justice Network had with the probationers.
U.S. District Court Judge James Moody dismissed the lawsuit in 2017, ruling that judges are immune from being sued when acting with their judicial capacity. Here’s the 8th Circuit ruling affirming that finding.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a friend of the court brief with the 8th Circuit and cheered the ruling.
“The private probation industry is not entitled to exploit an unequal justice system to drive up their profit margins,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “The Justice Network’s claims in this case were an affront to the ability of judges protect the civil rights of minorities and indigent defendants. We applaud the 8th Circuit’s decision and we hope this encourages all judges to critically examine how the enforcement of fines and fees has become an unjust burden on those who are simply too poor to pay them, and to take action to ensure equal justice and due process in their courtrooms.”
Boling and Fowler campaigned on reining in The Justice Network’s hold on the citizens of Craighead County, who were trapped inside what the judge’s called a “debtors prison.”
The Marshall Project wrote about them and the lawsuit in 2017:
The two men, David Boling and Tommy Fowler, won their elections in March 2016. They discovered on taking office that their campaign claims, if anything, were understated. There were 50,000 outstanding warrants, covering more than 8,000 people, in the misdemeanor court there; nearly one outstanding warrant for every two people in the county. Judge Boling later described what those figures looked like in his courtroom; of the 34 defendants who came before him one day in August 2016 only six were accused of crimes; the others all had run afoul of the The Justice Network.
The two new judges immediately made good on their campaign promises. They moved to end the county’s relationship with The Justice Network and they initiated an “Amnesty Day” program in which they met with men and women on probation to discuss payment options. In some cases, some of the fees that were owed were waived, freeing up those caught in endless cycles of debt and fear of imprisonment.