Report on SC's courts hits more positive note

info@islandpacket.comFebruary 26, 2013 

S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal was decidedly more upbeat last week as she gave her annual state of the judiciary address to lawmakers.

Toal has good reason to be pleased. Lawmakers came through last year with funding for nine new judges -- three Circuit Court judges and six Family Court judges.

The judges have been elected by the legislature and will take office July 1.

Lawmakers also came through with more funding for the Judicial Department this past fiscal year, up 16 percent from $37.5 million in 2011-2012 to $43.5 million for 2012-2013.

And Toal had good news on progress made toward an electronic filing system for all court documents -- both civil and criminal. The system will be available on the Internet at no charge within two years.

"That will put us light years ahead of the development of e-filing ... of any state in the country," she said.

The state has spent $45 million over the past 13 years to create "Ecourt" and address efficiency and privacy issues, particularly with Family Court filings, Toal reported. The state used federal funding to pay for it.

The system is expected to cost about $7 million a year to operate, Toal told The (Columbia) State newspaper after her speech. That money is to come from filing fees for civil cases, as well as fees from the 46 counties.

Not all of Toal's news was positive. The new judges will help with a still overburdened judicial system. South Carolina has the fewest judges per 100,000 people in the country -- 1 per 100,000 people versus a national average of 3.1 per 100,000 people.

The state's judges also have the highest caseload -- 5,060 filings per judge versus a national average of 1,780 per judge.

The new judges should make a difference, but we'll have to wait to see how much.

Another big issue still to be dealt with is a backlog in the state's criminal court docket.

The Supreme Court in November ruled that the state law giving solicitors control over criminal court dockets was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of powers doctrine by usurping the court's authority on judicial matters. Solicitors, who are part of the executive branch of state government, had too much control over when cases were called to trial.

After its ruling, the Supreme Court issued an order putting judges in charge of case dockets. The order was go into effect earlier this month, but after solicitors objected, the court instead chose to form a study panel.

A bill to address some of the concerns is moving through the legislature.

Toals said, "... we have enormous backlogs, tens of thousands of cases. ... We've got to drain the swamp of those cases first. We've got to get a handle on these old cases and dispose of them."

She noted that there are many reasons for the backlogs. Solicitors, clerks of court and public defenders all need more money.

"But we have got to have a business process for looking this in the eye and starting to make a dent in what we've got," Toal told lawmakers.

This is an important constitutional issue that must be addressed, and as Toal said, it will take all parties -- judges, solicitors, public defenders and defense attorneys to make it happen.

Add lawmakers to that list.

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