Currently, some criminal defendants in South Carolina wait two years before their case goes to trail, while others take less than half that time to arrive in court.
That could end soon in the wake of a Wednesday state Supreme Court ruling.
The ruling, which stemmed from a 2008 robbery case in Edgefield County, will have broad repercussions about how the state’s criminal court dockets work, said Beattie Butler, litigation director for the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense.
“You could have somebody who sits in jail two to three years and (prosecutors) will say, ‘We’re going to call this case that’s only 9 months old today,’” Butler said. “Hopefully, the impact of this decision means that won’t happen anymore.”
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson wasn’t so sure, saying such delays often stem from issues beyond her control, such as DNA tests, out-of-state victims and witnesses, requests for delays by the defense and defendants’ changing attorneys.
“The myth is we’re sitting around waiting for cases to get old,” she said, adding that the chief judge, who now will set the docket, “is going to face the exact problems we face. That is not going to change.”
The court found that the state law giving circuit solicitors the exclusive right to determine the order in which cases on the docket are called for trial is unconstitutional because it violates the separation-of-powers clause.
“Vesting a member of the executive branch with the exclusive authority to perform an inherently judicial function unquestionably is a violation of separation of powers,” the ruling states.
The court issued a four-page administrative order outlining how docket management will change beginning Feb. 4.
Wilson said she is excited about the ruling because her office could use help setting the docket.
“I don’t care when you set my case for trial. Just set it, and let’s roll,” she said. “Let’s have some certainty.”
She said what really could speed up trials is if guilty defendants had more incentive to accept a plea deal early on, rather than dragging things out in hopes that a witness dies or evidence is lost.
“Delay is their friend. Chaos is their friend,” she said. “The only way that’s ever going to get addressed is if we move to what the federal court system has, a clear reward for people who come in early and accept responsibility.”
The 1980 law that gave solicitors exclusive control of the docket was sponsored by 12 lawmakers, including former Rep. Jean Toal, now the state Supreme Court chief justice. Toal joined the majority in ruling that this arrangement is unconstitutional.
Justice Costa Pleicones dissented.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.