Solicitors oppose Supreme Court docket ruling

astice@islandpacket.comDecember 24, 2012 

South Carolina prosecutors are fighting a recent Supreme Court decision that stripped their power to schedule cases for trial.

The state Solicitors Association has asked the high court to reconsider a sweeping decision that gives control of the docket to judges. The S.C. Attorney General's Office supports the challenge.

The court decided 4-1 in November that the current system is unconstitutional because prosecutors have too much control over when cases are called. That violates the separation of powers outlined in the state Constitution, justices ruled.

But the solicitors' request for a rehearing argues that it's the new ruling that is unconstitutional. By giving the court the exclusive authority to set the docket, solicitors say the decision creates the same dilemma justices sought to avoid -- too much power in one branch of government.

Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said the court's ruling eliminates the checks and balances that already exist.

"We have the authority by law and by the South Carolina Constitution to prepare the docket, but we are not the final word on when the cases are called to trial," Stone said. "The judge has the final word, and that's a check."

Motions for a right to a speedy trial or for a delay also allow defense attorneys to have a say on when criminal cases are heard, Stone said.

Laura Hudson, executive director for S.C. Crime Victims' Council, said the ruling could harm victims.

"If I am a rape victim and my case is taking too long, I know who to call to pressure -- the prosecutor," Hudson said. "I'm not sure I'm going to have the same access with a judge, or who on his staff could help me."

Crime victims also have the right to be notified immediately about plea deals or changes in trial dates. Hudson said she isn't sure who will be responsible for that under the new rules.

"Maybe they've got a bucketload of money that I don't know about to be able to pay clerks of court to handle all this new work," she said. "I hope (justices) have considered all the ramifications."

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, also the state Solicitors' Association president, agreed that the ruling has created confusion among judges and prosecutors, who have until Feb. 4 to comply.

Some support the ruling, however.

The S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense said it could lead to speedier trials. The ruling establishes timelines for getting cases tried or dismissed.

But "delay never helps the prosecutor," Stone said.

He added the decision has far-reaching consequences for the criminal justice system, as well as his own circuit.

For example, the Solicitor's Office "on-call system," in which certain prosecutors are scheduled to work with and advise law enforcement officers as cases come in, would be in jeopardy if they are forced to be in court.

However, he said his office will continue to prepare as if the shift is taking place.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/IPBG_Allison.

Related content:

Ruling gives power to judges, not solicitors, to set court dates in SC, Dec. 4, 2012

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