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General Assembly Approves Family Court Bills

Two bills that supporters expect will bring big changes to South Carolina’s family court system are now heading to Gov. Nikki Haley for her consideration.

The S.C. House on Wednesday concurred with the Senate versions of H. 4699, which would add six family court judges statewide; and H. 4614, which would make changes in the way child custody cases are handled. The Senate gave final readings Wednesday to both bills before sending them back to the House.

Haley can sign the bills into law, let them become law without signing them, or veto them. Today is the last day of the regular legislative session; the General Assembly is scheduled to return to Columbia later this month to take up any vetoes and conference committee reports.

The main sponsors of H. 4699 and H. 4614 told The Nerve on Wednesday that they expect Haley to sign their respective legislation.

“The governor respects the judiciary as the third branch of government and them having the tools to perform their job adequately,” said Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville and an attorney.

Haley in her executive budget for fiscal 2013, which starts July 1, proposed adding three family court judges to the current state roster of 52. Bannister’s bill (H. 4699) initially called for six new family court and six more circuit court judges. There are 46 circuit judges in the state.

The House cut the proposed initial total in half, but the Senate later approved adding six family court and three circuit judges. The Senate version of the fiscal 2013 state budget proposes funding the nine judges, plus 21 support staff, at a total of $2.9 million.

S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal in her proposed budget for next fiscal year called for six more family court judges and three additional circuit judges, citing growing case backlogs in both courts. As of 2009, South Carolina led the nation in annual filings per judge at 5,011, more than twice the national average, according to the most recently available data from the S.C. Judicial Department.

The Nerve in March reported, citing department records, that none of the state’s 16 judicial circuits came close last fiscal year to hitting the department’s benchmarks for moving criminal cases through the state’s circuit courts.

Bannister said he believes that adding family court judges will help reduce large case backlogs in family courts, noting, “It should not take two years to hear a two-day contested case in family court.”

Bannister’s bill hit a snag last month when Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, blocked the bill from moving forward, contending the state didn’t need more judges. He later removed his objection, letting the legislation proceed to a vote.

Similarly, as the The Nerve reported last month, Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, stalled the bill that would change how child custody cases are handled. Leventis, who didn’t publicly state a reason at the time for blocking the bill, later removed his objection.

In a May 22 written response to The Nerve, Leventis said he hoped "to let this (bill) go shortly based on the work of many to be certain that the (family) court has latitude," adding that  there are many people "who have limited or no access to their children because demonstrably they should not."

That legislation would for the first time define joint and sole custody in the S.C. Code of Laws, something which, according to family law attorneys interviewed by The Nerve, typically depends on which judge is hearing a case.

The bill also would require parents to submit proposed parenting plans to the court at the beginning of a custody case. Supporters say that would allow family court judges to better decide which parent should receive joint or sole custody.

In addition, the bill would:

  • Provide family court judges with 17 factors in issuing or modifying custody orders, including such things as the preferences of each child;
  • Give each parent equal access to their children’s medical and educational records; and
  • Create a study committee to examine the “feasibility of tracking the outcome of contested temporary and final custody proceedings.”

“It’s not everything I wanted, but it changes the direction of the family courts,” Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens and sponsor of the bill, told The Nerve on Wednesday.

As for Haley’s position on the bill, Pitts said, “I think she has the best interests of children in mind, and I think she will sign it,” though he added he has not spoken to her about it.

“It’s not the end of what has to happen, but it’s a great beginning,” said Joe Carter, founder of a family court reform organization known as the S.C. Coalition 4 Parents & Children, when contacted Wednesday by The Nerve.

Carter’s organization believes that “equal, shared parenting time or joint custody is the optimal custody situation,” and that the “best parent is both biological parents,” according to its mission statement.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

 

Budget General Assembly Judiciary Legislation

S.C. Coalition 4 Parents & Children Rep. Mike Pitts S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal Rep. Bruce Bannister