He wears the same robe, sits on the same bench and uses the same gavel, but for a few days a month, Circuit Judge Roger Young presides over a new kind of court.
That's because Charleston County, where Young lives, is one of three across the state with a special court in which businesses can pursue complex cases, such as trademark issues and corporation questions. Fourteen other states also have some form of business court.
South Carolina's two-year business court experiment has gone well and likely will be extended this fall, perhaps with some changes, said Stephanie Nye, counsel for S.C. Supreme Justice Jean Toal.
So far, the business courts in Charleston, Greenville and Richland counties have resolved 10 cases and have 25 pending. Greenville has had the most cases, and Nye said court officials are trying to figure out whether that is a reflection of Greenville's relatively large private sector or if there is some other reason.
Interviews with the lawyers, judges and others involved show the new type of court is well-liked.
"The business court program is just starting to gather steam," Nye said. "We're going to work on getting more education for our lawyers so they feel more comfortable about transferring a case there."
Toal created the business court pilot program in October 2007 with encouragement from Charleston lawyer Brad Waring, who previously was head of the state Bar.
Waring said he since has had two cases in business court, and the system seems to work well. Most of the state's civil cases are heard by whichever judge is presiding in a given county in a given week. It's not uncommon for two or more judges to handle the case at different points along the way.
"What is great about business court is you get the consistency of one judge, and you get a judge that knows the facts," Waring said. "It's more like federal court where you get assigned a judge."
Here's how the experiment works: Toal picked three judges, including Young, to preside over the three new business courts and fit those cases into their civil and criminal case load. No extra public money was involved. Administrative judges or lawyers can ask Toal to assign complex business-related cases to these courts.
Once the case arrives, the judge can hold a special hearing as soon as both sides are ready. The case doesn't have to wait in the queue with other civil cases.
The court offers businesses more certainty over the process but not necessarily the outcome.
"Generally, businesses just need to have certainty and predictability," Young said. "They lose if they spend two years in litigation." They also can get hearings scheduled more quickly. As with other civil cases deemed complex, one judge presides over the entire process, from the initial discovery and pre-trial motions to the trial itself, if the case gets that far.
Young said the Stevenson v. Force Protection case is one of his business court cases that illustrates how complex some of these disputes can be.
"It's a shareholder derivative suit," he said. "There are lawyers from all over the country on both sides and there are companion cases going on in federal court and before the Securities and Exchange Commission."
Some have criticized the concept of business court as an elite step to give business special access to the courts, or one in which business interests might be favored.
Young said he has not heard either complaint here.
"These cases are usually business versus business or the business owners within the business litigating," Young said. "It's not big business versus the little guy."
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