More Judges in South Carolina Next Year?

April 20, 2012

Investigative Reports

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CourthouseWith huge court case backlogs statewide, the legal community in South Carolina in recent years hasn’t been bashful about asking the S.C. General Assembly to fund more judges.

That wasn’t likely when the Great Recession hit in late 2007, but with a proposed state budget for next fiscal year that is $1 billion more than this year’s ratified budget, there have been renewed calls to bring some relief to the third branch of government.

The Senate is considering a scaled-back version of a bill to increase the number of circuit and family court judges, along with a state budget bill that would fund the lower additional number, plus support staff, for half a year.

Meanwhile, state budget writers think nothing of throwing millions or even tens of millions at pet projects pushed by lawmakers or state agencies.

In her proposed budget for fiscal 2013, which starts July 1, Gov. Nikki Haley called for three more family court judges. S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who heads the state Judicial Department, asked legislative budget writers for six more family court judges and three more circuit court judges.

In January, Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, introduced a bill (H. 4699) that would add a total of 12 new judges, increasing the number of circuit judges to 52 from 46 and the number of family court judges to 58 from 52.

But the House Judiciary Committee last month amended the bill, reducing the number of proposed additional judges to three circuit and three family court judges.The full House on March 22 unanimously signed off on the lower number.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee is scheduled next week to take up the bill. The panel originally was scheduled this week to consider it, but the meeting was postponed.

The last time lawmakers increased the state’s trial court bench was in 1997 with the addition of three circuit court and three family court seats, according to Judicial Department records.

Contacted Thursday, Bannister told The Nerve that his proposal was amended to reflect the House version of next fiscal year’s state budget bill, which authorizes a total of six new judges, plus 15 support staff.

“I’m not opposed to what’s authorized in the budget,” he said, though he added, “I still think we need to have six (more circuit judges) and six (more family court judges).”

Bannister, an attorney, said it’s not uncommon to wait years to bring some criminal cases to trial in South Carolina. The Nerve reported last month that in fiscal year 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, Judicial Department records show.

As of June 30, 115,354 criminal cases were pending in circuit courts statewide. Bannister said he believes additional judges could help reduce those backlogs.

The House version of the proposed fiscal 2013 state budget appropriates a half-year’s worth of funding for six additional judges and 15 support staff, allocating a total of $925,199, which includes salary and health and retirement benefits.

A fiscal impact statement prepared by the Office of State Budget put the annual total at $2,068,568 in recurring costs for the 21 positions and $111,360 in non-recurring costs for the set up of office space and furnishings.

Family court judges earn $126,883 annually; the yearly salary for circuit court judges is $130,312.

Although the House version of the fiscal 2013 state budget would fund the 21 positions for only half a year, that likely wouldn’t pose a problem – assuming the House version receives final approval – because the judges, who are elected by lawmakers, probably would start no sooner than January of next year, Thomas Timberlake, the Judicial Department’s finance and personnel director, told The Nerve Thursday in a written response.

The state court system doesn’t rely solely on general funds. For example, the department’s “other” fund revenues, which include various fees imposed on court users, have been growing rapidly in recent years, from $19.55 million in fiscal 2006 to $23.77 million at the end of last fiscal year, The Nerve reported previously. Nearly $9.6 million in other funds was carried over into this fiscal year, Office of State Budget records show.

At a Senate Judiciary subcommittee meeting in February, Toal repeated her pledge not to raise court fees, though she made no promises to immediately seek to eliminate or reduce the fees.

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