Chief Justice Proposes Big Budget Hike, Faces Screening Hearing

November 4, 2013

Investigative Reports

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JudgesSouth Carolina’s top judge is seeking more than $22 million in new spending in next fiscal year’s budget for the state court system, including adding four judges, beefing up computer security and continuing a renovation project at the Court of Appeals building.

Besides the four new judicial seats, Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal’s budget for fiscal 2014-15, which starts next July 1, would add 23 support positions to the Judicial Department’s payroll, including six staff attorneys at the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, according to her budget plan filed recently with the Office of State Budget.

The department’s total ratified budget for this fiscal year is $69.4 million. Toal’s proposals will be considered by Gov. Nikki Haley, who will present her fiscal 2015 state budget to the General Assembly, which returns to Columbia in January.

Toal, 70, is scheduled to be screened Tuesday by the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission for re-election to another 10-year term for her chief justice seat, though the mandatory retirement age for the court is 72. She is being challenged by fellow Justice Costa Pleicones, 69, who has been on the high court since 2000 – an unusual situation as most incumbent judges face no opposition. Pleicones’ screening hearing also is scheduled for Tuesday.

If both are found qualified and nominated by the screening commission – which is all but a given barring any unforeseen, significant developments – the pair will face election early next year in the 170-member General Assembly, where Toal served for 13 years as a Democratic House member before her election to the Supreme Court in 1988.

South Carolina and Virginia are the only states in which their legislatures play a primary role in electing judges.

The 10-member screening commission by law is made up of six lawmakers. Half of the panel is appointed by House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, with the remaining appointments shared by Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens and the commission chairman.

Harrell appointed his brother, John Harrell, a Charleston attorney, to the commission, though state law bans a lawmaker from having disciplinary authority over a relative in a public position. The South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization- filed a complaint against Harrell in February with S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, alleging, among other things, that Harrell violated the law in appointing his brother to the commission.

The Nerve reported last year that South Carolina is one of only two states – Tennessee being the other – in which its legislative leaders control the makeup of a panel that nominates judicial candidates. According to the American Judicature Society, an Iowa-based research organization, 36 states have judicial nominating commissions, though it doesn’t classify South Carolina as a “merit selection state” because of the legislative control over its nominating panel.

Four of the six lawmakers on the panel – Sens. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, and Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington; and Reps. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, and Alan Clemmons, R-Horry and the commission’s vice chairman – are attorneys. Lawyer-lawmakers who want to become judges historically have had an advantage over their challengers, as The Nerve reported in July.

And that practice continued last year. After state lawmakers created nine new judicial seats, 50 lawyers went through the screening process, including two former S.C. House members, the spouse of a current state representative, and a law partner of a former House member. All four candidates with legislative connections won their elections, which represented 44 percent of the new seats. Six new family court and three additional circuit court seats were created by the Legislature, bringing the total number of seats in those courts to 58 and 49, respectively.

In her budget request for fiscal 2014-15,Toal is asking for two additional circuit court judges and two more family court judges, along with two additional administrative assistants, two court reporters and two law clerks for the new circuit judges; and two more administrative assistants and two court reporters for the additional family court judges.

The total listed price tag for the 14 new positions is more than $1.4 million. Circuit judges receive an annual salary of $134,221; family court judges are paid $130,689 yearly. Toal’s salary is $148,350.

Toal in her budget request said the extra judges and staff are needed to help ease caseloads that she has repeatedly pointed out are the largest in the country.

The chief justice also is asking for three more staff attorneys for her court and three additional staff lawyers for the Court of Appeals, contending they are needed to help speed up the appellate process. In a story last week, the Charleston City Paper reported that the Supreme Court often fails to comply with an old law that requires the high court to file rulings within 60 days from the time a term ends after hearing a case.

Other big-ticket items in Toal’s proposed budget for fiscal 2015 include more than $7.5 million for a “data security and disaster recovery” site at Clemson University; another $525,000 for seven IT and data security positions; and $10.7 million to continue renovations at the nearly 100-year-old Calhoun Building on the State House grounds, which houses the Court of Appeals and court administrative offices.

The court system’s budget over the years has relied more heavily on court fees, which have been used to beef up reserves, as The Nerve has previously reported. In this fiscal year’s $69.4 million ratified budget, for example, about $20.5 million, or nearly 30 percent of the total, is made up of “other” funds – largely revenues from court fees.

The department carried over more than $15.6 million in “other” funds into last fiscal year, which started July 1, 2012, state budget records show. How much in reserves is available this fiscal year was not immediately known last week; a spokeswoman at the Judicial Department told The Nerve on Friday that the finance office would release that information only after receiving a letter requesting it.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.