Scheduling authority belongs with the courts

info@islandpacket.comDecember 9, 2012 

The state Supreme Court upheld a fundamental principle of our system of government when it ruled state prosecutors should not have exclusive control of the criminal court schedule as laid out in state law.

The court ruled 4-1 last month that such control was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of powers doctrine by usurping the court's authority on judicial matters.

It was a good decision, and the administrative order laying out how cases are to be scheduled starting in February should be workable. If not, the state's high court should make changes necessary to address any problems.

As described by those who do this work, there already are some checks and balances to ensure people don't languish in prison awaiting trial. Prosecutors and defense attorneys often collaborate on determining when a case is ready for trial. Defendants can ask a judge for a speedy trial.

Still, sometimes people do sit in jail only to be acquitted later or have their cases dismissed. And the current system, which exists nowhere else in the country except South Carolina, puts too much power into the hands of one party in an adversarial system.

Under the new rules, solicitors still control a case's schedule for a year and a half. After that, scheduling becomes the responsibility of the chief administrative judge for the circuit. If a case hasn't reached resolution a year after that -- a full 2-1/2 years after its first entered into a track for trial -- the case is dismissed unless the solicitor can establish "good cause" for continuing it.

The justices point out that a solicitor's discretion in deciding how to proceed with a case, including whether to prosecute and whether to bring it to trial or offer a plea bargain, is not affected by their decision.

Still, we take seriously 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone's concerns about the changes and their impact on his ability to prosecute cases under his career criminal program. Stone has worked hard to improve scheduling in our circuit. For example, he consolidated a two-week session of court with one judge presiding into a one-week session with two judges hearing cases simultaneously. That helped move more cases.

His career criminal prosecution team, which focuses on those accused of violent crimes and multiple offenders, also has helped resolve more cases more quickly, and it has helped reduce the number of prisoners held in the Beaufort County Detention Center. The circuit's case backlog has dropped from 3,158 on Jan. 1, 2009, to 1,511 on Jan. 1, 2012.

The high court's goals are not that much at odds with Stone's goals of prosecuting cases in an expeditious way. Neither wants to see people sitting in jail for months and months awaiting trial.

The new rules might remove some of his flexibility and authority and put pressure to deal with less serious cases more quickly. But in describing how his career criminal prosecution team works, Stone has said sending the more serious cases to seasoned prosecutors on the team frees up other prosecutors to move more quickly through the docket of lesser offenses.

We're confident that Stone can work with the scheduling protocol outlined in the Supreme Court's administrative order, and if not, he can identify what changes might be needed to improve it.

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