The S.C. Senate Judiciary Committee has proposed adding six family court judges statewide, up from three additional judges proposed by the House in March.
The Judiciary Committee last week didn’t change the House proposal of adding three circuit court judges. The original House bill (H. 4699), introduced by Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, in January, called for six additional circuit and six more family court judges for next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
“I believe the Senate (version of the state) budget is going to have the six (family court judges),” Bannister told The Nerve on Tuesday. “I’m still hopeful they will do all of them.”
On paper, finding money for more judges next fiscal year shouldn't be as difficult as in previous years, as the proposed House version of the fiscal 2013 budget is $1 billion more than this year's ratified budget, The Nerve reported earlier.
On top of that, the S.C. Board of Economic Advisors on Tuesday approved adding a projected $137 million in recurring money to next year's general fund, and an additional projected $137 million in non-recurring funds for the remainder of this fiscal year, citing smaller-than-expected state income tax refunds and a steadily decreasing unemployment rate. Combined with an unexpected $18 million bump in lottery proceeds, the total projected new money comes to $292 million.
Bannister’s bill could be debated this week on the Senate floor, though it is relatively low on the calendar, and lawmakers aren’t scheduled to be in session on Thursday because of the Confederate Memorial Day holiday.
There are 46 circuit and 52 family court judges in South Carolina. They serve six-year terms and are elected by the Legislature.
Circuit court judges earn $130,312 annually; the yearly salary for family court judges is $126,883.
The last time the General Assembly increased the state's trial court bench was in 1997 with the addition of three circuit and three family court seats, according to S.C. Judicial Department records.
No matter how many new judicial seats lawmakers might authorize this year, no positions would be filled unless there is money in the state budget to fund them. The House version of the fiscal 2013 budget would fund six new judges, plus 15 support staff, allocating a total of $925,199 for the positions, which includes salary and health and retirement benefits, though they would be funded for only a half a year.
Thomas Timberlake, the Judicial Department’s finance and personnel director, earlier told The Nerve the half-year funding, if it receives final approval, likely wouldn’t pose a problem because the judges, who are elected by lawmakers, probably would start no sooner than January of next year.
The Office of State Budget projected annual recurring costs for the 21 positions at slightly more than $2 million.
The Senate Finance Committee could pass its version of the state budget this week.
Gov. Nikki Haley in her proposed budget for fiscal 2013 called for three more family court judges. S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who heads the Judicial Department, asked legislative budget writers for six more family court and three additional circuit court judges.
Bannister, an attorney, said although he doesn’t know if more judges will be approved this session, he believes the chances are better now because all of the proposed additional positions would be at-large seats as opposed to resident judges, who must live in their respective judicial circuits to be elected from those circuits.
Many lawmakers likely would be more inclined to approve the additional at-large seats because there would be a chance of electing a judge from their respective areas, Bannister said.
Under current law, all 52 family court judges are resident judges, as are 33 of the 46 circuit judges.
Toal and others in the state’s legal community have been calling for more trial judges in recent years, citing large case backlogs. The Nerve reported in March that in fiscal 2011, none of the state’s 16 judicial circuits met the Judicial 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. Last fiscal year, 15 of the 16 judicial circuits didn’t hit the benchmark even 50 percent of the time, and the one circuit that came closest fell 14 percentage points short, records show.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.