The dismal statistics were the same, but state Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal's pitch to lawmakers for more judges took a slightly different turn this year.
In her state of the judiciary address to the General Assembly, Toal once again pointed out that 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. Our judges also have the highest number of cases per judge -- 5,011 versus a national average of 1,791.
Toal again asked for more judges, nine this time. But she told lawmakers she had a way to pay for them if they would authorize them. She said she could pay for three new Circuit Court judges and six new Family Court judges with a new a system for attorneys to file documents electronically that will charge them fees to do so.
The chief justice and top administrator for our court system also hit lawmakers with a rationale they should find hard to resist -- a well-functioning court system will help draw businesses to the state.
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"It's a highly important factor in economic development," Toal said, "as I am learning more and more as I interact with South Carolina on the importance of the courts here and abroad."
That only makes sense. Businesses rely on courts to sort out important issues -- issues they bring to the court and issues that are forced upon them by others. Overburdened judges and crowded dockets diminish their chances of timely resolutions.
Toal has extended the state's business court pilot program in Charleston, Greenville and Richland counties through 2013. Fifty-five percent of the cases filed in the program have been resolved, she reported.
She also has put together a docket management task force to review court operations and look for ways to maximize efficiency.
As for the electronic filing, Toal has shown she can deliver on technology promises. She's brought the state's court system into the computer age. The Circuit Court system now has an electronic case management system. In June, the final county went live. Later this year, the public will have online access to filings in the state's appellate courts.
Toal's message on the heavy caseload and its impact on people has been consistent. As she has in years past, she pointed to problems in the Family Court system.
"People are hurting and are desperate in our Family Court system," Toal said. "Real people who need help suffer because we don't have the Family Court time for them."
Lawmakers should listen to the chief justice and do what they can to help. She's come to them not only with problems, but also solutions.