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Lawmakers Give Chief Justice Power to Set New Court Fee

Over Gov. Nikki Haley’s objection, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal now has the authority to establish a new fee for users of the state court system.

But Toal, who heads the state Judicial Department, told The Nerve on Wednesday that the fee will be optional, though the legislation giving her the authority doesn’t specify that.

“All of us in state government have been urged by the governor to market our optional services and use the proceeds to fund our operations,” Toal said in a written response. “That is precisely what we are doing with this optional service.”

The S.C. General Assembly easily overrode Haley’s veto of a bill (H. 4821) that would allow Toal to set a fee for filing court documents electronically. The “e-filing” system has not been developed; lawmakers appropriated $5 million this fiscal year for that purpose.

The new law doesn’t set any caps on e-filing fees, though it requires that revenues generated by the fee “be dedicated to the support of court technology.”

The e-filing fee, which Toal said has not been set, would be added to a list of court fees that have made up an increasing chunk of the Judicial Department’s budget in recent years.

Both the House and Senate versions of the proposed fiscal 2013 budget would appropriate nearly $20.5 million in “other” funds, which include various court fees - excluding e-filing fees - to support the state court system. Other funds would make up more than 28 percent of the Judicial Department’s total proposed budget.

For the fiscal year that ends Saturday, the department’s total ratified budget was $68.1 million. In addition, nearly $9.6 million in other funds was carried over into this fiscal year, Office of State Budget records show.

The Nerve has previously reported that the department's other-fund revenues have grown rapidly in recent years, from $19.5 million in fiscal 2006 to nearly $23.8 million last fiscal year, according to OSB records.

The move to an e-filing system comes as lawmakers passed another law during this year's legislative session adding six family court and three circuit judges to the statewide bench. Haley last week signed that bill (H. 4699) into law.

In her June 11 veto of the e-filing bill, Haley wrote that she did not “believe that any branch of government should be provided with such comprehensive, unilateral authority to impose fees without regulatory or other comparable review.”

Last week, the House voted 93-14 while the Senate vote was 39-3 to override Haley’s veto. None of the voting 36 legislator-lawyers, whether Republican or Democrat, including Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter and the bill’s sponsor, supported the veto.

Toal said the purpose of H. 4821 was “not to authorize the imposition of e-filing,” but rather to “ensure that any fees generated by this optional system will be directed to Judicial Department technology.”

Toal said that “many entities in state government charge optional fees for optional services,” adding those fees are “not set by statute.”

“Subscription rates for publications such as SC Wildlife Magazine, greens and cart fees for state park golf courses, and fees for copying documents are three of many examples,” she said.

The e-filing fee would generate $5.5 million to $11.7 million annually, according to a fiscal impact statement on the bill prepared by the Office of State Budget, which noted that the Judicial Department provided the estimate.

Toal provided a table showing that the revenue projections were based on a fee of $5 per document filed online. For example, based on an average of 12 court documents filed per case and 194,856 case filings statewide in 2010, the total revenue generated would be $11.7 million.

Of the 194,856 new filings, 114,003, or about 59 percent, were civil cases in circuit court; another 79,998 filings, or 41 percent of the total, were in family court. 

Toal said the $5 fee in the table was “used as a working number for calculation purposes as a reasonably low number compared to what other states charge.”

“We will involve a broad base of potential users in developing the e-filing fee,” she said.

Under current state law, filing a paper copy of a lawsuit in South Carolina’s circuit courts costs $150; motions filed with a suit cost an additional $25 each. Filing a civil complaint in magistrate courts costs $25, and most other civil filings in that court cost $10 each.

Toal said that with a voluntary e-filing system, those “who want to paper file only, may do so.”

Any e-filing fees would be on top of already-established court fees, Smith, the bill’s sponsor, told The Nerve this week, though he said the e-filing fees are “going to be nominal.”

If Toal tried to impose high fees for the online filing system, the Legislature could set caps through state budget provisos to prevent that, he said.

“I agree with the governor; I don’t want anybody to have complete autonomy.” Smith said, though he voted to override Haley’s veto of his bill.

Smith said in contrast to the federal court system, a state e-filing system would be voluntary. But unlike the proposed state system, users of the U.S. District Court, for example, are not charged fees for filing documents electronically, though they have to pay filing fees based on the type of document, said Lois McLeod, the U.S. District Court’s electronic case filing coordinator in Columbia, when contacted Wednesday.

In U.S. District Court, only attorneys admitted to practice in that court are allowed to file documents electronically; non-attorneys must file paper documents, McLeod said. Toal said a state e-filing system would be “available to any user.”

The projected cost of a state system is between $5 million and $9 million, Toal said. Implementation of the system would take anywhere from about 1.5 years to three years, according to a table provided with her response.

Toal said having an e-filing system “provides ease of access to file documents for court users,” and that it would “hasten the day when all court records can be accessed by the public without charge online.”

“This is going to open the court system a whole lot more than it is,” Smith said.

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

 

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