S.C. Chief Justice Addresses Case Backlogs, New Court Fee

February 14, 2013

Investigative Reports

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SC Supreme CourtSix of the nine new S.C. judges who begin work July 1 will have the task of reducing the backlog of family court cases, the state’s top judge told lawmakers Wednesday.

“Family Court is the most stressed court we have,” S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who heads the state’s Judicial Department, testified to a Senate Finance subcommittee. “We have some things to help that not the least of which is the new judges.”

Besides the six new family court judges, the General Assembly last year also added three circuit court judges, bringing the total number of family court and circuit court seats to 58 and 49 respectively.

The chief justice reiterated, citing 2010 data, that the Palmetto State has the nation’s heaviest caseload per circuit court judge, with one judge for every 100,000 residents and each judge tackling 5,060 cases on average. In comparison, the national average in 2010 was 3.1 judges for every 100,000 people, with each judge having 1,780 cases.

Toal did not provide specific numbers for family court backlogs, but the Court Statistics Project revealed a 3 percent to 4 percent increase in 2010 nationwide for domestic courts. The Nerve reported on case backlogs in 2012 here.

Toal also said the state court system as a whole hasn’t been meeting established benchmarks for clearing caseloads.

The Criminal Justice Subcommittee had just one member present for Wednesday’s meeting – Chairman Mike Fair, R-Greenville. Staff for subcommittee members Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, and Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Spartanburg, were present for the hearing, though because of a lack of a quorum the panel couldn’t take votes on budget recommendations for the Judicial Department and the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice. Also, the state budget process starts in the House and moves to the Senate; the House has not yet passed its version of the budget.

Fair said he wants the state to use more mediation to resolve part of the divorce-case backlog in family court.

“There’s some salvageable families,” said Fair, adding mediation can play a role.

Toal agreed with Fair, saying the state needs to get money to private organizations in the state that handle mediation for indigent clients. But the court system has other challenges related to family court, she said.

Toal said family courts currently rely on affidavits to determine child custody and visitation. She also said that during one out of every five court days, family court judges hear S.C. Department of Social Services cases involving parents who failed to pay child support.

The chief justice said in those cases, the parent is on some form of public assistance, and the court becomes a collection entity, requiring input from DSS on each case.

“Something has to change in that picture because that takes away from us being the entity to give quality treatment to the rest of the docket,” Toal said.

The chief justice seeks a total budget of $69.3 million for the court system for fiscal year 2014, which starts July 1, the same amount in this fiscal year’s “actual” budget, according to Office of State Budget (OSB) records.

Those documents show that the Judicial Department’s budget is comprised of about $45 million in general funds, $20.5 million in “other” funds, and $3.8 million in federal funds.

A chart that Toal provided the subcommittee shows a growing and heavy reliance on court fines and fees, which make up other funds. Those collections climbed from $2.8 million in fiscal 2002 to $18.7 million in fiscal 2010.

Last fiscal year, the department collected nearly $23.4 million in other funds, OSB records show.

Toal acknowledged that fees and fines are a significant revenue generator.

“The court system top to bottom generates a lot more than it takes to run them. This is a revenue source for the state, big time,” she said.

The chief justice, however, made no mention of lowering or eliminating any court fees.

The state court system relies on counties and municipalities to collect the system’s share of fee and fine money, and send it to the (S.C.) Treasurer’s Office, Toal said, adding there is a problem with some local jurisdictions retaining the court system’s portion.

Here is a list of municipalities that have failed for at least one year to provide the state with required audits of fee and fine money.

Meanwhile, the Judicial Department will create a new fee later this year when it starts a pilot project to have electronic filing for court cases, Toal told the subcommittee. She said several counties will be picked for the pilot project, with full statewide participation in 12 to 18 months.

While court officials initially will have a general idea of the revenue generated with the filing fee under the pilot program, exact amounts wouldn’t be known for another two years, she said.

Toal said the increase in other-fund collections in recent years didn’t stop the Judicial Department from running into financial problems when the Great Recession impacted state revenues, noting the court system survived for two years by dipping into its “rainy-day” fund.

The department is far from poor these days, however.

OSB records show that the department carried forward $15.6 million in other funds into this fiscal year, and $9.5 million into fiscal 2012.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.