Appeals court rules attorney fees not protected as debt, agrees Montgomery County man should serve jail time

Steve Korris May 7, 2008, 5:21am

Although the Texas Constitution forbids imprisonment for debt, a Texan who refused to pay an attorney's fee will spend 30 days in jail.

The 9th District appeals court on May 1 denied a writ of habeas corpus to Jonathan Skero, who disobeyed a family violence protective order that included $1,750 for attorney William Adair.

The appellate judges wrote that "attorney's fees are a means of enforcing a legal duty in which the public has an interest, and the fees are not viewed as mere debts or money judgments."

They upheld Montgomery County District Judge Kathleen Hamilton, who held Skero in contempt of a protective order.

In addition to refusing to pay Adair, Skero failed to submit an affidavit swearing he started counseling for anger management.

On appeal his attorney, Celia Brown, argued that Adair's fee was a debt that Hamilton could not enforce through a contempt order.

At first, 9th District judges agreed. In April, they granted Skero temporary relief.

After a closer look, Chief Justice Steve McKeithen and Justices David Gaultney and Hollis Horton disagreed.

"An obligation that is a legal duty arising out of the status of the parties, as opposed to a debt, may be enforced through the court's contempt powers," they wrote.

"Attorney's fees related to child support contempt actions are considered costs, not a debt," they wrote.

Except for good cause, they wrote, a family violence protective order must include all fees, charges or expenses incurred in connection with the order.

"A family violence protective order, including the assessment of attorney's fees, enforces a legal duty, not a private agreement or contract between the parties," they wrote.

Adair represented Christie Burks Grissom, as real party in interest.

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