A Leon County judge ruled yesterday that court filing fees may not be used as a source of income for the state’s general fund, finding that fees used to pay for government programs outside the court system amount to an unconstitutional tax.

Cash-strapped courts, overwhelmed in part by a surge in foreclosure filings, have been battling the legislature for fee revenue. According to the summary judgement issued Thursday, nearly $187 million in court fees has been diverted to the general fund since 2004.

Plaintiffs Robert M. Ervin and Davisson Dunlap — both 50-year veterans of the Florida Bar, according to a news release — argued that those fees function like a tax because they are used to pay for programs outside the court system. For example, $50 million from court fees has been spent on prisons.

Judge Frank Sheffield of Florida’s Second Circuit Court agreed, ruling that the law restricted citizens’ constitutional right to access the court system.

A report published earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice condemned the practice of “cash register justice” — using legal fees to fund the judicial system and the state’s budget.

The decision, which will likely be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, does not end that practice or fulfill the study’s recommendations, but it does strike down the laws, passed in 2004 and then expanded in later years, that allowed the legislature to use some court fees to fund programs outside of the court system.

Sheffiled’s summary judgement can be read below:

Ervin v Crist SUMMARY JUDGMENT

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