Ruling gives power to judges, not solicitors, to set court dates in SC

astice@islandpacket.comDecember 4, 2012 

  • Advocates for a new Supreme Court ruling say it could lead to speedier trials. Prosecutors disagree. Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said the new rules could jeopardize his Career Criminal Prosecution Team, which he credits with cutting the backlog in General Sessions cases, as follows:

  • Jan. 1, 2009: 3,158 cases pending

  • Jan. 1, 2010: 2,276 cases pending

  • Jan. 1, 2011: 1,678 cases pending

  • Jan. 1, 2012: 1,511 cases pending

A new state Supreme Court ruling is changing the way court cases are scheduled in South Carolina by taking power away from prosecutors.

The Nov. 21 decision puts judges in control of setting the dockets. Each circuit must start following the new rules by early February.

The high court found that the state law giving prosecutors the exclusive right to determine the order in which cases come to trial violates the U.S. Constitution's separation-of-powers clause. The decision stemmed from a 2008 Edgefield County robbery case, South Carolina vs. Langford.

Advocates for the change such as the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense praised the new rules, saying it could lead to speedier trials.

"You could have somebody who sits in jail two to three years, and they (prosecutors) will say, 'We're going to call this case that's only nine months old today,' " said Beattie Butler, litigation director for the commission. "Hopefully, the impact of this decision means that won't happen anymore."

But some solicitors say it would not lead to cases being tried faster.

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, also the state Solicitor's Association president, called the idea that prosecutors set the docket "a myth."

"It's a shared responsibility with the courts," Pascoe said.

He added that "90 to 99 percent" of trial dates are set by both the defense attorneys and the prosecutors, who flesh out an agreement after considering schedules, witness availability and other factors. If they can't agree, a judge intervenes to set the date, Pascoe said.

Pascoe said the Solicitor's Association is still considering whether to file a motion asking the Supreme Court to reconsider. He declined further comment.

Solicitor Duffie Stone, whose 14th Circuit includes Beaufort County, said his staff is preparing for the shift. Other administrative orders included in the high-court ruling "changes everything we do," Stone said.

For example, his career-criminal prosecution program, which focuses on prosecuting repeat offenders who commit most of the crimes, could be in jeopardy. Stone credits the program with cutting the backlog in General Sessions court. But the new ruling will change the way his office prioritizes those cases, he said.

Stone agreed with the opinion of the Supreme Court's lone dissenter, Justice Costa Pleicones, a former public defender. In his dissent, Pleicones said there are already checks in the current system that give trial judges the last word on when cases are scheduled. He also noted that defendants have recourse if a case drags on too long, such as filing a request for a speedy trial.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.

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Crime analyst helps solicitor's team target 'worst of the worst' Jan. 28, 2012

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