Court System Raking in Fees, Accumulating Millions in Reserves

December 12, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveFile a lawsuit in circuit court in South Carolina and it will cost you $150. Add another $25 for each motion filed in your suit.

If you’re filing a civil complaint in magistrate’s court, you’ll pay $25. Throw in another $10 for most other civil filings in that court.

Get a traffic ticket, and you’ll pay a $25 surcharge on top of your fine.

If you’re paying court-ordered child support or alimony, you’ll owe an additional 5 percent assessment on whatever the payments are.

The S.C. Judicial Department uses part or all of the above fees, which are authorized under state law, to help keep the court system operating.

But the department also has been able to build up millions in reserves over the years with those fees, The Nerve found in a review of state records.

Although the department is asking lawmakers to approve a slightly smaller overall budget for next fiscal year, the third branch of government doesn’t appear to be hurting for money – in large part because of fees imposed on people using the court system.

State comptroller general records reviewed by The Nerve show that the state court system ended fiscal year 2010-11 with a total balance of $13.4 million, most of which was generated in “other” funds through court fees.

Another comptroller general report shows that the Judicial Department had about $9.6 million in “other” funds cash as of June 30.

The Nerve recently asked Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who heads the judicial department, if court fees should be lowered given a healthy growth rate in those revenues in recent years.

In a written response on Nov. 18, Thomas Timberlake, the department’s director of finance and personnel, said Toal was in a meeting in Washington, D.C., and was unavailable for comment at the time. But speaking on behalf of Toal, Timberlake said court fees account for more than 25 percent of the department’s operating funds, and that “these fees should not be reduced.”

“The restoration of the SCJD budget last year was the first year in many that adequate (general) funds were received by SCJD to meet the constitutional requirements of the court,” Timberlake said. “However, there still are not enough funds necessary for the SCJD to add additional judges, which are badly needed.”

Given the amount of lawsuits, court fines, and alimony and child support payments in South Carolina every year, the annual fees received by the Judicial Department easily tally in the millions.

There have been recent legislative proposals to change the way the court system is funded. In January, state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington and an attorney, introduced two bills (S. 423, 425) that would require the General Assembly to annually fund the Judicial Department at 2 percent of the state’s general fund revenues in the previous fiscal year.

The Nerve reported in February that the state court system would receive at least $70 million more annually under Malloy’s proposal. Neither bill, one of which was a joint resolution proposing a change in the state constitution, made it out of committee, though both measures can be considered again when lawmakers convene in January.

Contacted recently, Malloy told The Nerve that he doesn’t think his proposals will get any more traction next year. But he said he believes the bills are important because they would take away the Legislature’s control over funding of the state court system.

“A (fixed) percentage of the budget would preserve the independence of the judiciary,” he said. “You know what your expectations are when you get your (revenue) forecast, and you have to operate within your means.”

That formula, however, could result in large windfalls for the court system in years when general fund revenues grew rapidly.

Asked if court fees should be reduced, Malloy didn’t give a specific answer, saying only, “I think that has to be determined by the wisdom of those setting the budget for the judiciary.”

‘Significant Reserves’ Accumulated

Toal has requested a total of nearly $66.3 million in general, federal and “other” funds for the fiscal year that starts July 1, according to her proposed budget submitted recently to the Office of State Budget.

About $40.8 million of the requested total are general funds, including a $2.9 million increase in recurring funds that would replace the same amount appropriated previously in non-recurring funds.

The total amount requested is down slightly from the $68.1 million appropriated for this fiscal year, though the department typically receives more revenues during the fiscal year than what was appropriated.

The court system, for example, ended last fiscal year with an adjusted total appropriation of $74.2 million – about $7.2 million, or 10.6 percent, more than its original total appropriation, according to comptroller general records.

In her written budget proposal for next fiscal year, Toal said the department had “accumulated significant reserves” between fiscal years 2003 and 2008. Those reserves originally were designated for building repairs and replacing federal funds earmarked for technology improvements, she said.

But with general fund cuts that came during the Great Recession, the court system would have “faced a true constitutional crisis” without the reserves, she said.

“Massive layoffs and cancellation of court would have resulted in the inability to provide justice and dispute resolution forums which are constitutionally required and necessary for the safety and well-being of the people of South Carolina,” Toal wrote.

The department’s reserves in recent years have benefitted from large increases in “other” funds, made up largely of court fees paid by people using the system, The Nerve’s review found. For example, by the end of fiscal year 2009 – a year when the department was hit hard with general fund cuts – the system had received nearly $8 million, or 49 percent, more in other funds compared to the previous year, Office of State Budget records show.

Toal, who became chief justice in 2000, has said publicly that the court system under her watch has relied more on court fees because of general fund cuts, though lawmakers last  year restored most of the $16 million in cuts made since fiscal year 2008.

That was done after Toal unsuccessfully pushed for a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland and the House Judiciary Committee chairman, that would have doubled certain court filing fees, as reported by The Nerve in April 2010.

The Judicial Department’s general fund budget for this fiscal year was set at $42.6 million, up $5 million, or 13 percent, from last fiscal year’s adjusted budget, records show.

Other Funds Growth

Other fund appropriations have been growing rapidly in recent years, from about $14.4 million in fiscal year 2006 to an adjusted appropriation of nearly $27 million at the end of last fiscal year, according to OSB and comptroller general records.

Timberlake disputed The Nerve’s findings, saying in his written response that it is “uncertain as to the source of your numbers.” He said other funds have been “relatively steady around this $18 million total,” though he also noted that “this number is increasing annually.”

Not surprisingly, the department’s other fund surpluses have shot up as well, from about $4 million in fiscal year 2006 to nearly $14 million in fiscal year 2009, according to OSB records. A 2010 annual report provided by Toal to the Legislature showed a similar trend.

Of the $13.4 million balance at the end of last fiscal year, about $10.19 million, or  76 percent, was in other funds, according to comptroller general records. Most of the remaining balance was in federal funds, records show.

Office of State Budget records show that the Judicial Department carried over a total of more than $16 million into fiscal year 2009 – the year when the court system experienced more than $8 million in general fund cuts. The department lost another approximate $8 million in general funds in fiscal year 2010, bringing those revenues down to about $22.8 million that year from $38.7 million two years earlier.

But those losses were offset in large part by increases in other funds, records show. The department also has received a sizable increase in federal funding in recent years, from $5.4 million in fiscal year 2008 to a $9.7 million adjusted authorization last fiscal year, OSB and comptroller general records show.

Toal’s Goals

The federal money has allowed Toal over the years to move the state’s old paper-records system to an Internet-based system. In her 2012-13 budget proposal, Toal said one of the department’s four “primary areas of focus” will be to replace those federal funds with a “sustainable, recurring revenue stream that can continue the technology initiatives when federal funds are completed.”

Timberlake in his written response to The Nerve said the department is developing an electronic filing system for attorneys – which is done now in the federal system – to “create a sustainable revenue source in the future given that SCJD federal funds are coming to an end in 2012.” He added that the Legislature appropriated $5 million toward the project, which will start next year; that money is coming from the state’s capital reserve fund, records show.

Toal’s budget request didn’t specify how much attorneys will be charged to use the electronic filing system, which Timberlake said will be voluntary. Timberlake said it is “uncertain at this time how the filing fee will be structured,” though he added that he expects it will be less than a courier fee lawyers pay to deliver and file documents with the courts.

Lawyers already pay bar exam and bar license fees, which help support the Judicial Department.

The other three primary goals for the state court system next fiscal year, as outlined by Toal in her budget request, are:

  • Increasing the “technology functions and services provided by every court in the state, from the small rural areas to the large, urban regions”;
  • Implementing changes in the “processes and procedures of the trial courts and skill sets of judicial staffing based on the results of the task forces and project efforts of last year”; and
  • Devoting efforts to address the “serious, physical deterioration” of the Supreme Court building and the nearby John C. Calhoun building, which houses the S.C. Court of Appeals.

For the general public, Toal cited plans to equip the courtrooms in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals with digital audio and video equipment to provide streaming of oral arguments.

Toal’s top four goals didn’t include adding more judges, despite Timberlake’s response to The Nerve that they were “badly needed.”

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