In South Carolina, the victim of a robbery or an assault might have to wait more than a year and a half to see justice served. That’s a long time to be in limbo. Too long.
The problem is a backlog of criminal cases, and the reason for the backlog is inadequate resources.
Every year Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal asks the Legislature for additional money to resolve the unwieldy docket backlog. When the General Assembly last year added nine judges (circuit court and family court), it was the first time since 1997.
It is clearly not enough. But it is what the courts have, so Mrs. Toal and a group of solicitors are working on a plan to expedite the case docket by changing the way it is managed.
She tried one plan earlier this year, but it didn’t fly. So she’s back at it, this time with the help of a panel of solicitors.
One source of encouragement is seeing that some judicial circuits handle their caseloads better than others. York County’s 16th Circuit met the state’s benchmark by having at least 80 percent of its pending criminal cases less than a year old. It was the only circuit to do so.
Greenville, which had 75 percent, can be a model for others circuits, Mrs. Toal suggests.
A one-size-fits-all system will be a challenge to develop. Circuits vary widely in size, resources and caseloads. But Justice Toal and the state’s solicitors are wise to look for ways to improve efficiency and expedite the caseload.
And the Legislature should do its part to fund the courts adequately so that their operation can be even more timely and efficient.
The tendency of some legislators to disregard the judiciary and skimp on funding is unfortunate. Last year, for example, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said, “Of all the things we need in South Carolina, more judges is not one of them.”
Actually, providing fair and speedy trials is necessary. The alternative is to signal that South Carolina doesn’t have enough respect for the judiciary to fund it.
That would be an affront to the essential responsibility of the state to provide timely resolution of court cases. And that would be foolish for a state trying to burnish its image and improve its prospects for economic development.
Of course, the judicial branch has the responsibility to make the courts as efficient as possible, and Justice Toal’s campaign demonstrates that those efforts begin at the top in South Carolina.
But the courts also must have the resources they require to serve the citizens of South Carolina. And that demands the ongoing support of the state Legislature.
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