Reports that S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal and solicitors are close to a plan to move criminal cases more quickly and efficiently through the court system are welcome.
Justice delayed is justice denied for those accused of crimes and for the victims of crime.
This is no small problem. Thirty-seven percent of the criminal cases pending statewide are more than a year old; 24 percent are 18 months old or older, according to a July 10 report for the past fiscal year.
In the 14th Judicial Circuit, 38 percent of the 3,526 criminal cases pending are more than a year old, with 27 percent older than 18 months, according to the report.
The state's high court has set a benchmark of 80 percent of a circuit's pending criminal cases at a year old or less. The 14th Circuit was at 62 percent as of June 30, according to the report. Only the 16th Circuit, covering York and Union counties, had reached or exceeded the 80 percent benchmark. Eighty-nine percent of its pending cases were a year old or less.
The Supreme Court is trying to reduce the time it takes to schedule a case for trial. In November, it ruled that the state law giving solicitors exclusive 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. (South Carolina is the only state that by law gives prosecutors exclusive control of scheduling.)
The court issued an order putting judges in charge of case dockets, but after solicitors, clerks of courts and others involved in the process objected, the court instead chose to form a study panel. Toal says she expects to release the panel's work this summer and issue a new order on how to proceed this fall.
It will be interesting to see what the panel comes up with. The previous order didn't seem onerous.
Solicitors still controlled a case's schedule for a year and a half. After that, scheduling became the responsibility of the chief administrative judge for the circuit. If a case hadn't reached resolution a year after that -- a full 2-1/2 years after its first entered into a track for trial -- the case was dismissed unless the solicitor could establish "good cause" for continuing it.
Still, the relatively widespread criticism gives us pause, and Toal was right to step back and work with solicitors on a solution.
In the meantime, legislators are working on their own solution. Under a bill passed by the House and pending in the Senate, a defendant in a criminal trial could ask the circuit's chief administrative judge for a hearing to set a trial date if a case not been scheduled for trial within 180 days of an indictment. It also requires a case to go to a grand jury within 90 days of an arrest warrant being issued.
Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone supports the legislation, saying the bill would resolve the constitutional issue and safeguard smaller circuits with fewer prosecutors and fewer resources.
The Senate rightly held off on the bill until the study panel finishes its work. Lawmakers should see what the court and the solicitors come up with before taking action. With constitutional issues at play, a legislative solution, rather than one coming from the judiciary, makes us uncomfortable.
What lawmakers can do is make sure solicitors have the resources to carry out their work in a timely fashion. County officials also must do their part.
Solicitor David Pascoe of Summerville, a past president of the Solicitors Association, told The Greenville News that resources are an important part of the case management discussion.
"The number one problem is funding," Pascoe said. "And the second problem is funding, and the third problem is funding."
Stone points to the disparity in resources in his five-county circuit. Funding from Beaufort County pays for eight of the 24 prosecutors in the 14th Circuit, which also includes Jasper, Allendale, Hampton and Colleton counties. But Allendale County -- where 40 percent of the population is below the poverty line -- can only afford one prosecutor.
According to the court report on pending criminal cases, 61 percent of Allendale's 327 cases are a year old or older; 50 percent are more than 18 months old. In Beaufort County, 40 percent of its 1,698 pending cases are a year old or older, with 27 percent older than 18 months.
Money is the root of many of our problems. We can come up with myriad solutions, but if the resources aren't there to make it work, what have we accomplished?