March 2013

Lowcountry Lawyers: Nearly Inevitable- Navigation the South Carolina Judicial System

Author: Kitty Bartell

Chances are that at some point in your residency in the Palmetto State, you will need to utilize the services of the State of South Carolina Judicial Department or that you will become a servant of that system. As an upstanding resident of your state, this may come as an unwelcome surprise. However, Beaufort County Associate Chief Magistrate, Lawrence P. McElynn explains, “They could either be here for a traffic offense, criminal matter or a civil matter, where either they’ve been wronged or they’ve wronged someone, or they’re being called for a jury.” In other words, you’re being sued, you’re suing someone, or your number has come up and it’s time to do your civic (jury) duty.

Commonly known as the people’s court, the court of first appearance, or formerly small claims court, Magistrate’s Court is where the majority of cases are heard annually. Imagine South Carolina’s judicial system as a four-level pyramid:

Magistrate’s Court forms a significant portion of the base of the entire structure, with the largest number of sitting judges hearing approximately a million cases statewide in 2012 alone. “If they’re coming to court, the likelihood is, this is where they’re going to be,” McElynn said.

The State’s Judicial Department is a branch of government generally taken for granted (or quite possibly ignored) by the average citizen. However, because of the likelihood of every registered voter in the State interacting at some point with this department, a working knowledge of the various courts, the types of cases they hear, and how the courts operate may come in handy.

Level One: The Supreme Court
Starting at the peak of the pyramid, the Supreme Court is the state’s highest court. Consisting of a chief justice and four associate justices, each may serve an unlimited number of 10-year terms as long as they are re-elected by the General Assembly. Hearing the fewest cases annually and only those it selects from appeals made in the Court of Appeals, as well as cases heard directly from the Circuit Court such as those involving the death penalty and the constitutionality of a state statute, few citizens ever actually interact with this court. The State Supreme Court also provides opinions to the Federal Supreme Court in cases involving South Carolina laws and oversees the admission to practice law and discipline of lawyers.

Level Two: Court Of Appeals
Just below the Supreme Court on the pyramid, the Court of Appeals is exactly what its name implies. Decisions made in Family Court, Circuit Court, and by Master-in-Equity, may be appealed to a panel of three judges drawn from this court’s eight associate judges and its chief justice. An appeal to this court is made in the form of a written brief. The judges read the brief, review transcripts of earlier hearings, and review the evidence. The judges then send their opinion to the parties with their reasoning. Often, parties involved in the appeal appear before this court for oral argument. Cases may be affirmed, reversed or remanded to the trial court in partial or in full.

Level Three: Family Court, Circuit Court and Masters-In-Equity
Family Court, Circuit Court, and Masters-in-Equity carry a great deal of the state’s judicial workload, address a greater number of cases, and employ more judges to complete the work than the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals combined.

Family Court is the only court charged with hearing cases involving domestic issues: marriage, divorce, legal separation, custody, visitation rights, termination of parental rights, adoption, support, alimony, division of marital assets, and name changes.

Thirty-two judges are charged with ruling on cases in the state’s 16 circuits and are empowered to hold emergency hearings when cases of neglect resulting in injuries or abuse are involved. Most criminal cases involving juveniles under the age of 17 are heard by Family Court, unless the case has been transferred to Circuit Court and the individual will be tried as an adult.

Under the jurisdiction of 46 judges, assigned by the chief justice to the state’s 16 judicial circuits, the Circuit Court has the broadest powers of all the South Carolina courts. The Circuit Court consists of two trial courts: a civil court, the Court of Common Pleas, and a criminal court, the Court of General Sessions, where all cases not assigned to other courts are heard. Given the extensive agenda of cases heard in Circuit Court, it may be easier to review examples of reasons why a case may not be heard in Circuit Court: cases that may be assigned to a different court due to the amount of the claim, or a specific jurisdiction may change the case assignment, such as Family Court and Probate Court. This court is also tasked with hearing appeals from Probate Court, Magistrate’s Court, Municipal Court, the Workers’ Compensation Commission, and the Administrative Law Division.

The final division on this third level is the Master-in-Equity. Foreclosures, partitions, and real estate contracts are examples of issues presided over by this court, along with any other case referred to them by the Circuit Court. Currently numbering 21, these judges are appointed by the Governor in counties with 100,000 or more residents. Master-in-Equity has the same power and authority as the Circuit Court, and sits without a jury. In fact, the Master-in-Equity is a special Circuit Court Judge.

Level Four: Probate Court, Municipal Court and Magistrate’s Court.
The foundation for the South Carolina Judicial Department consists of some real work horses. This is where the most cases are heard and where the most judges are seated, giving the base of South Carolina’s judicial pyramid the strength and structure required to meet the needs of a growing population.

With or without a will, the property of a deceased person will be addressed in Probate Court. Elected by voters to four-year terms, probate judges are the only South Carolina judiciary holding office at the will of the people. Broadly, probate judges make sure that the distribution of assets and the paying of creditors is executed properly. Should disputes occur, such as contested wills or issues of mental competence, Probate Court is where they are settled. Most cases are heard by and decided by the judge only; however, occasionally a jury trial may be called for, but only on a limited basis. Probate Court also issues marriage licenses and approves wrongful death and survival action settlements.

Municipal Court and Magistrate’s Court are separate courts in some counties. When there is a Municipal Court, it has jurisdiction over all state offenses and municipal ordinances subject to fines up to $500 or up to 30 days in prison.

As Beaufort County residents, it is Magistrate’s Court where the greatest number of disputes and offenses are addressed. With jurisdictional limits on civil claims of up to $7,500, and criminal cases for offenses subject to fines of $500 or less, or imprisonment of 30 days or less, Magistrate’s Court is commissioned with moving cases quickly through the judicial process. “The Chief Justice makes us go through a 60-, 90-, or 120-day cycle, maximum,” McElynn explained. “If you have something pending here, the likelihood is that we’re going to get to it within three months.”

Beaufort County Magistrates are responsible for setting bond for the majority of people who are arrested in the county, conducting preliminary hearings, and issuing arrest and search warrants. “We don’t get felonies in this court. We only get misdemeanors,” McElynn said. Some examples of those include possession of marijuana, being cited for having an open container of alcohol, or driving under the influence.

Civil cases in Magistrate’s Court are also presided over with the goal of reaching an agreement that ends the action quickly. Sometimes, even before a hearing or trial proceeds, McElynn says a compromise may be reached. “As soon as someone files a lawsuit, everyone involved stops talking, so then no one ever reaches an agreement.

Oftentimes, if you give them an opportunity to, they’ll reach an agreement and you can just dismiss the matter, and essentially, everybody’s happy. A lot of times, in a civil matter, if they have a chance to discuss it prior to undertaking a trial, it may be the first time they’ve talked about it in months. It saves everybody a lot of time.”

Magistrate’s Court operates at a fast pace, but is still a place where a civility is expected, McElynn said. Juggling various roles from legal mind, to father-figure, to counselor, running a courtroom requires a firm hand with a soft touch. “People aren’t used to having a civil discourse any more. They automatically want to argue, or they want to overpower the person who is saying something they don’t agree with,” McElynn said. “You can’t run a courtroom like that. You can make it very clear what you expect. Sometimes all it takes is a look. If they don’t stop, then you have to impose a sanction on them. It can be a fine or at the end of the hearing take them to jail. I’ve never had to send someone to jail, but I’ve had to fine them.”

Magistrate’s Court is a part of the larger judicial system in South Carolina, and according to McElynn, “If you’re going to have a court experience in your lifetime, it’s likely going to be in Magistrate’s Court. [If] they’re going to pay a ticket, someone’s going to sue them or they’re going to try and get some help on a small claims matter. If their dog is running loose and they get at ticket, they’ll be right here. If their llama breaks loose and eats someone’s shrubbery; right here. If there is littering going on, they’ll be here. Driving a car with an open container, they’re going to be right here. Driving under suspension, right here. DUI, right here. Driving under the influence of drugs, right here. Public disorderly conduct, right here.”

With an understanding of the South Carolina Judicial system, most would agree that the hope is to limit interaction with the justice system to fulfilling a summons to jury duty. According to McElynn, seating juries has become challenging, “We summons 100 people to get six.” Being called to jury duty in Magistrate’s Court has some appeal and serves an important need, “Give it a try. It’s interesting. You’re not coming here for a two week trial. You’ll be here for two hours. It may be one morning out of your life. We need you to do this, because if you don’t come, we can’t have a trial.” Chances are you’re going to get your turn.

The South Carolina Judicial Department’s website is an easy-to-follow resource for how to navigate the labyrinth of the various state courts. In addition to forms and frequently asked questions, valuable links are provided to assist citizens whether they are representing themselves in court, are being represented by an attorney, or have questions regarding their responsibilities as a potential juror. Visit sccourts.org.

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