If you ask most South Carolina attorneys who handle criminal cases, they likely would tell you that the campaign-finance fraud case of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard was a first of its kind in recent memory in terms of how quickly it was wrapped up.
In a span of a normal work day on March 9, Ard:
- Was indicted by the state grand jury;
- Resigned his lieutenant governor’s position;
- Pleaded guilty to all seven counts against him of campaign-finance violations; and
- Walked out of a Richland County courtroom a free man after being sentenced to five years’ probation.
The South Carolina court system, however, typically doesn’t move with such lightning speed.
S.C. Judicial Department records reviewed last week by The Nerve show that in fiscal year 2011, which ended June 30, none of the state’s 16 judicial circuits met the department’s benchmark of moving criminal cases through the circuit court system.
The department's goal is to have 80 percent of pending circuit court cases in a given fiscal year disposed of within 180 days. In 1999, then-S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney ordered that all criminal cases in the state be disposed of within 180 days of arrest, unless the trial judge determined that more time was needed because of "exceptional circumstances." Finney's order followed a 1983 order by then-Chief Justice Woodrow Lewis establishing the 180-day deadline.
Last fiscal year, 15 of the state's 16 judicial circuits didn’t hit the department's benchmark even 50 percent of the time, department records show. Rates in that group ranged from less than 20 percent in the 6th Circuit, which covers Fairfield, Chester and Lancaster counties; to 46 percent in the 14th Circuit, which covers Jasper, Beaufort, Allendale, Hampton and Colleton counties.
The 16th Circuit covering York and Union counties came closest to hitting the benchmark, though it fell 14 percentage points short (66 percent).
In total, 115,354 criminal cases were pending in circuit courts statewide as of June 30, according to Judicial Department records.
Some criminal cases – particularly murder cases – can take years to bring to trial. Generally in South Carolina, local solicitors set the trial docket, though they contend delays often occur for reasons outside their control.
As examples of long-running cases, prosecutors in Lexington and Greenville counties are scheduled next month to try death penalty cases that are nearly six years and four years old, respectively.
In the wake of Ard's case, which was handled by the S.C. Attorney General's Office, The Nerve last week asked the office, which oversees the state grand jury, for statistics on the average length of time in disposing state grand jury cases, but did not receive a response by publication of this story.
Asked why Ard’s case moved through the court in just one day, Mark Plowden, spokesman for Attorney General Alan Wilson, told The Nerve in a written response: “The state grand jury has never, to our knowledge indicted a sitting Lt. Gov. The state itself needed to avoid a constitutional crisis of any kind, and our goal was continuity of government.”
“It was best for the state,” Plowden continued, “and that was recognized by all involved.”
Wilson had been criticized publicly in recent months for the slow pace of the state grand jury in Ard’s case. The citizens’ panel, which meets in secret by law, first began looking at evidence in Ard’s case in July, according to media reports.
New System, Old Results?
The Richland County Circuit Court where Ard appeared on March 9 was tapped in 2001 by the state’s top judge, Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, to showcase a new criminal case docketing system that officials hoped would be a model for the rest of the state.
But it apparently hasn’t lived up to expectations in recent years, according to Judicial Department records reviewed by The Nerve.
Under the program, defendants are put on 120-, 180- or 270-day “tracks” to dispose of their cases, depending on the seriousness of their alleged crimes. Richland County’s program was modeled after a similar program in York County that had been operating for the previous 10 years.
“The docketing system has allowed us to knock those (backlog) numbers way down and to put certainty in the system,” Barney Giese, then the solicitor of the 5th Circuit covering Richland and Kershaw counties, said in a 2005 article in The State newspaper.
In fiscal year 2011, though, the 5th Circuit fell well short of the Judicial Department’s benchmark, disposing of pending cases within 180 days only 32 percent of the time, department records show.
In fiscal year 2010, the circuit hit the benchmark in 30 percent of its cases; in fiscal year 2009, the rate was 40 percent.
In an interview last week with The Nerve, Dan Johnson, the current 5th Circuit solicitor, said his circuit has more than 10,000 pending cases, or charges, though he noted he has reduced the backlog since taking over the office last year.
“It’s a good idea,” Johnson said about the case-tracking system. “But we need more judges. We need more lawyers.”
Johnson said he has asked Richland County Council for additional funds for three more prosecutors in his office, which has 30 attorneys. Kershaw County has two prosecutors, he said.
The 5th Circuit was the busiest in the state last year, Johnson said, noting his office handled 17,000 cases, many of which involved more complex violent crimes.
In contrast, the Charleston- and Greenville-based judicial circuits have more prosecutors and bigger budgets, he said, adding his office receives about $2.7 million from the county.
Johnson said he also is requesting that Richland County Council increase the starting $37,009 salary for his prosecutors, which he believes will reduce turnover.
“We have the lowest starting salaries in the state,” he said. “I’m asking to raise that to stabilize (our office).”
More Judges, Defense Lawyers Needed
In her state-of-the-judiciary speech last month to a joint session of the S.C. General Assembly, Toal called for the addition of three circuit judges and six family court judges, contending that South Carolina trial judges have the largest caseloads in the country.
As of 2009, the latest year for which figures were available, South Carolina led the nation in the number of filings per judge (5,011), which was more than 2.5 times the national average, according to department records Toal cited in her speech.
“So despite the many efficiencies that we have put in place to try to move cases and eliminate backlogs in both circuit and family court, the filings are continuing to increase,” Toal said. “And we must now look at new investment in judicial personnel for South Carolina.”
Besides additional judges and prosecutors, more defense attorneys and staff are needed to help reduce case backlogs, said Christopher Scalzo, the interim 10th Circuit public defender and president of the South Carolina Public Defender Association, when contacted last week by The Nerve.
Scalzo said in his circuit, which covers Anderson and Oconee counties, his five full-time attorneys and three part-time lawyers handle an average of 276 clients per attorney, which he noted is higher than caseload standards set by the American Bar Association.
“Certainly, if you don’t have enough people, you’re not going to be able to move these cases in an efficient manner,” he said.
Asked about the handling of Ard’s case, Scalzo questioned whether other Richland County cases were “leapfrogged” to move Ard’s case, though Johnson, the 5th Circuit solicitor, said none of his cases was affected.
Patrick McLaughlin of Florence, president of the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told The Nerve last week that the speed with which Ard’s court case was handled was “unusual” compared to the processing of typical circuit court cases.
“The folks in South Carolina charged with crimes would certainly love to see their cases disposed in that timely a manner,” he said.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.